Tim Benz: Steelers a long way from possible repeat of 2004 magic
The comparisons are obvious.
The team was coming off a non-playoff season. The veteran starter hurt his elbow in a Week 2 loss. The reigns were handed over to a first-time starter many thought could be the franchise heir apparent.
Things felt bleak.
Feels familiar, right? It’s 2004 all over again.
That’s the vibe Pittsburgh is getting in 2019 as Ben Roethlisberger gives way to Mason Rudolph in a similar fashion to how he took over for an injured Tommy Maddox in 2004.
The comparisons don’t stop there. Much like this year’s team, the list of 2004 Steelers injuries didn’t stop at the quarterback.
• Nose tackle Casey Hampton went on injured reserve in mid-October after getting hurt during a win in Dallas.
• Free agent acquisition Duce Staley got off to a strong start but was injured during a Week 7 victory over New England before yielding the starting job back to Jerome Bettis.
• Guard Kendall Simmons was lost in training camp with an ACL injury.
Now all the Steelers need is a nice, tidy, 15-game winning streak into the playoffs to complete the picture.
Good luck with that.
Sure, Rudolph carried a lot of pedigree into the NFL. At Oklahoma State, he was the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm winner and threw for 13,618 yards and 92 touchdowns.
But Roethlisberger brought even more optimism onto the field as a rookie. He was a high first-round draft choice. Taking over for a veteran journeyman like Maddox was a matter of when, not if.
Rudolph is a different story. His path toward replacing Roethlisberger is less secure than that. And his ability to succeed as an NFL starter seems more up for debate.
“He’s more than ready for the opportunity,” head coach Mike Tomlin said.
He better be.
Because for as bad as things looked to start Week 3 back in 2004, that team was better suited to handle some of the travails of supporting a first-time starter at quarterback than this year’s unit appears to be.
As bad as the team looked in that 30-13 loss to Baltimore when Maddox got hurt in September 2004, they had at least won the opener against Oakland.
Under Hall of Famer Dick LeBeau as coordinator, the defense was far better. It allowed the fewest points and fewest yards in the league that season.
Under future NFL head coach Ken Whisenhunt, the offense was far more willing to run the ball to protect its young quarterback — and far more capable of doing so with Staley and Bettis. That Steelers squad led the NFL in rushing attempts and led the AFC in rushing yards.
The receivers were less of a question than this year’s puzzling unit. Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and Antwaan Randle El had established themselves as an effective trio the previous two seasons catching passes from Maddox.
Of course, Roethlisberger’s ahead-of-the-curve talents heightened the skills of a team that had stunningly gone flat in 2003. Generally, though, he had a sturdier platform to gain his sea legs than what Rudolph has been granted.
It’s up to the rest of the players in Black and Gold to change that narrative starting this week in San Francisco.
“We’ve got to take the biggest onus,” defensive captain Cameron Heyward said of his side of the ball. “Special teams. Defense. We are going to try to alleviate as much pressure going forward and give (Rudolph) as many opportunities as he needs.”
A few short fields because of turnovers, like in Week 2 against the Seahawks, would help a lot.
“You can’t throw the ball for him,” guard David DeCastro said. “But you want to give the most support you can around him. Block for him as long as you can. Run the ball. Have a nice balanced offense. Everyone has to step up a little bit.”
DeCastro’s reference to balance is important. Maybe the silver lining to Roethlisberger’s injury is that it will force the Steelers to lean on Pro Bowl running back James Conner and the running game more often.
Consider this stat: Roethlisberger didn’t play at all in the regular-season opener or finale his rookie year. Of the other 14 games, he threw the ball 20 times or less in seven of them.
Rudolph attempted 19 passes in just 30 minutes against the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday. And that was a game the Steelers were leading when he entered.
Those numbers have to change.
But if his supporting staff wants to start singing a little Johnny B. Goode, it may not be a bad idea.