Ben Roethlisberger did everything he could to keep the Steelers’ season alive. The veteran quarterback, playing with his back against the wall in a game where Pittsburgh trailed for more than 55 minutes, had the most prolific postseason performance of his career, throwing for 469 yards and five touchdowns while setting up a lateral that accounted for his team’s sixth.
It wasn’t enough in the 45-42 loss. The Steelers’ — and Roethlisberger’s own — miscues proved fatal against an opportunistic Jaguars team. A tip-drill interception and a strip sack immediately led to 14 Jacksonville points. A pair of fourth-and-short failures eventually gave way to long touchdown drives that put 14 more points on a Pittsburgh defense that couldn’t get stops.
That propelled a seven-point underdog to a win in a hostile environment — and threatened to close the book on Roethlisberger’s Hall of Fame career. Fortunately for the Steelers, whose backup passers are Landry Jones and Joshua Dobbs, Roethlisberger told the press he’ll be back for his 15th season next fall.
“I definitely have a desire to play football. I love this game. I love these guys. It’s tough. It stings. You hate to lose, you hate to lose at home,” he said after his team’s season-ending defeat. “I don’t know about contracts and who’s coming back, but I know the guys up front are, and that makes it good for me. So I look forward to next year with those guys.”
But will 2018 be the year he takes his very good Steelers team back into the land of the great and secures his franchise’s seventh Super Bowl title? Pittsburgh will have plenty of questions to answer this offseason — and that includes who will fall in line as Roethlisberger’s successor in 2019 or beyond.
What’s next for the Killer B’s?
The first thing the Steelers will need to figure out is how to retain their All-Pro running back. Le’Veon Bell played 2017 under the franchise tag after the Steelers refused to bend their own rules and give him the guaranteed money for which he’d held out. That threatens to make the dual-threat star a free agent — and Bell has suggested he’d rather retire or sit out the season than play 2018 under another one-year tag, no matter how lucrative it is.
For now, Bell sidestepped any questions about his contract, though he did tell reporters he thinks the team has the right players in place.
“I think if we get everybody healthy, it can be even more special,” Bell said after the loss.
While money will be the end-all in negotiations, Pittsburgh does have another motivating factor working in its favor. Bell knows what the Steelers can offer him in terms of blocking and support. The presence of players like Antonio Brown, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Martavis Bryant help prevent opponents from stuffing the box and focusing solely on stopping him, giving him a greater opportunity for him to thrive. Further motivation could come from the fact that Bell, Brown, and Roethlisberger — the team’s “Killer B’s” and arguably the league’s best RB-WR-QB combination — has never advanced to a Super Bowl together.
After the game, Brown was dismayed that they he missed out on another chance to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
“Every year we get so close and can’t quite seem to get the job done,” he said.
But Brown isn’t going anywhere — the NFL’s best receiver is signed through 2021. He’s not giving up on the idea that this current group can bring home a title, either.
“I’m hoping we can do it one day.”
His quarterback believes they can, too:
Ben Roethlisberger puts a hand on Antonio Brown's arm in the #Steelers postgame locker room and says: "Are you OK?" Brown responds quietly and the QB says, "We'll get there. We'll get there."— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) January 14, 2018
The Steelers have to make some decisions this offseason
The good news for all parties is offensive line will remain intact. The burly Roethlisberger was sacked just 21 times in the regular season thanks to the presence of three Pro Bowlers — Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro, and Maurkice Pouncey — in the trenches. All five of his starters, including Ramon Foster and Marcus Gilbert, will be back as well. That is the balm that can soothe a quarterback intimately familiar with the churned-up gravel that passes for turf at Heinz Field.
But Pittsburgh may have to utilize some creative bookkeeping to fit Bell in next year’s budget. According to Spotrac, the Steelers have less salary cap space than all but two teams in the NFL for next season, as their expiring contracts will leave the team with just over $4.4 million in wiggle room in the offseason. Releasing players like Joe Haden, Mike Mitchell, Vance McDonald, and Tyson Alualu may be necessary sacrifices in the name of appeasing Bell, who had 155 total yards and two touchdowns in Sunday’s loss.
But one concern for Bell, and the rest of a talented offense, will be whether or not their aging quarterback can continue to fend off Father Time.
Will there be any dropoff in performance for Roethlisberger in 2018?
Ben Roethlisberger will be 36 years old next season. That may not seem that old in an era where Drew Brees can throw for 5,200 yards at age 37 and 40-year-old Tom Brady is pledging to play until the heat death of the universe, but Roethlisberger’s history of taking punishment gives him 14 very long years in the NFL. Sunday’s loss was his 221st game in the league. Carson Palmer made it 186 games. Tony Romo played 162. Few quarterbacks can last as long as the Steelers staple has.
Yet it’s not just the mileage under Roethlisberger’s hood, but the damage he’s taken along the way. He’s absorbed 528 career sacks and a seemingly infinite number of knockdowns along the way. He’s been able to play a full 16-game slate just three of his 14 seasons, mostly thanks to the continued presence of nagging injuries that, if he were a horse, would have resulted in euthanasia several times over.
Despite all that, he’s remained one of the league’s best quarterbacks. Roethlisberger started the season slowly with a 7:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio over his first six games before finding his groove. That included a bonkers 506-yard performance in a comeback win over AFC North rival Baltimore and back-to-back four-touchdown showings against Tennessee and Green Bay.
He also could have played in all 16 games this season. The only game he missed was the finale against the Browns in Week 17, when the Steelers rested their starters — a matchup Pittsburgh still won because, well, they played the Browns.
His finish was impressive, but those slow starts will be tougher and tougher to recover from as his career marches forward. More tellingly, retirement has weighed heavily on his mind, whether it’s been a factor in his decision to play last spring or his views on an ever-violent game in December. Roethlisberger has reached a point in his career where he could retire at any point and it wouldn’t be a surprise, nor would it be tough to blame him.
If he can’t keep playing — should his performance slip or injuries finally catch up with him or even if he just changes his mind — the Steelers don’t have a ton of great options in relief. Jones has been a below-average backup, struggling when pressed into action during a four-year career. He’s only won three games as a starting quarterback in the NFL. All three have been against the Browns.
Dobbs is a more interesting prospect, if only since he’s had fewer chances to poison his reputation in front of the Steelers’ faithful. He didn’t take a snap for the team after an up-and-down preseason, but he was a dynamic two-way threat at the University of Tennessee. He has a ways to go before developing into a contributor, however, and the team may have to turn to the 2018 NFL Draft to take another shot at Roethlisberger’s replacement.
Pittsburgh has plenty to worry about in 2018. The franchise needs to figure out what to do with Bell. It has to find a way to replace the presence of Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Shazier if he can’t play next season and beyond. It’s got to find a way to consistently beat Brady.
But the quarterback situation is set for at least one more year, and that’s a win. After trailing for 55-plus minutes against the Jaguars on Sunday, that’s the kind of consolation this team needs.