Pittsburgh Steelers Are Setting Up Big Ben to Fail in 2021

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJune 28, 2021

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) looks to pass under pressure by Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett (95) during the first half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 10, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

A teary-eyed Ben Roethlisberger sitting on the bench next to his center, Maurkice Pouncey, after being pummeled in the opening round of the playoffs by the upstart Cleveland Browns remains the lasting image from the Pittsburgh Steelers' 2020 campaign.

Everyone wondered whether it was the end for the future Hall of Fame quarterback.

It wasn't, but the Steelers didn't do Roethsliberger any favors in their approach to building the offense around the 39-year-old this offseason.

Some will think the Steelers did well by their quarterback with the first- and second-round additions of running back Najee Harris and tight end Pat Freiermuth, respectively. Those decisions will look worse in retrospect after Pittsburgh passed on multiple high-end offensive line prospects.

Mistakes were made, and Roethlisberger will suffer the consequences.

David DeCastro's release Thursday exacerbated a significant area of concern, though extenuating circumstances have come to light. The six-time Pro Bowl selection, including last season, dealt with ankle issues that require further assessment.

"I have to get surgery on my ankle a third time," DeCastro told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Joe Starkey. "I tried to fix it last year, but the bone spurs kept coming back. It nagged me pretty bad all last year."

The two-time All-Pro guard may retire but has yet to make a decision. Stepping away isn't a foregone conclusion, though it remains a possibility.

"Gotta see how the surgery goes," DeCastro said. "But I'd have no problem calling it a day and moving on with my life."

Kirk Irwin/Associated Press

The lineman's release saved Pittsburgh $8.75 million against the '21 salary cap. Some of the recouped cap space went toward signing Trai Turner, who likely enters as DeCastro's replacement. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Turner agreed to a one-year, $3 million deal.

The 28-year-old's addition places a Band-Aid on a crumbling foundation.

From a fantasy football perspective, the Steelers are exciting because they feature wide receivers Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster (who re-signed this offseason) and Diontae Johnson. Freiermuth joins Eric Ebron at tight end. Plus, Harris will become a focal point of the scheme after Pittsburgh finished dead last in rushing offense last season.

Ownership wants to see a more physical football team this fall.

"We've got to be better at running [the football], and certainly we don't want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers being last in the league in rushing ever again," owner Art Rooney II told fans during a Q&A in March.

What happens when the offensive line doesn't open holes or hold up in pass protection? Everything starts to fall apart. It's great in theory to draft the top running back prospect and an extremely talented tight end. But those pieces have to be viewed within the construct of the entire offense.

The Steelers scheme is expected to drastically change under new play-caller Matt Canada. Harris will be a workhorse. Expect more pre-snap motion and play action with fewer instances of shotgun and empty sets.

"You'll see nothing that you've seen in the past," Roethlisberger said.

These things will help the quarterback mask personal and personnel limitations. Even so, the Steelers will be at a significant disadvantage in the trenches.

Turner's addition looks great on paper, but he's a downgrade. The incoming right guard has five Pro Bowls under his belt, yet he's never been as good as DeCastro, and his blocking grades decreased in each of the last three seasons, per Pro Football Focus' Justin Edwards:

Justin Edwards @Justin_Redwards

With release of DeCastro and Trai Turner's visit, let's take a look at how each has fared by PFF's grades in recent years Each trending down, one faster than the other: (Turner / DeCastro) 16 - 67.0 / 84.7 17 - 73.8 / 89.0 18 - 67.9 / 74.8 19 - 63.9 / 71.1 20 - 34.8 /66.2

Opposite Turner, Kevin Dotson enters his second season as arguably the Steelers' best offensive lineman. Drafted in last year's fourth round, Dotson started four games as a rookie and played in 13. He flashed and looked like a middle-round steal. The sophomore blocker must show the same level of potential through an entire season, though.

Center is up for grabs after Pouncey's retirement. J.C. Hassenauer, who started four games last season for an injured Pouncey, and third-round rookie Kendrick Green will vie to become Big Ben's snapper.

As the team's top drafted lineman with plenty of physical potential, Green is the early favorite to win the job, but the competition isn't a foregone conclusion. Green primarily played guard during his collegiate career with only four starts over the ball.

"It's a learning experience obviously for him, not just making the transition but to transition to the league by being a full-time center," offensive line coach Adrian Klemm told reporters. "All those things considered, he's done an admirable job. He's embraced it."

Roethlisberger's close relationship with Pouncey is well documented. Whoever starts at center, it will be a transition for the veteran signal-caller.

Don Wright/Associated Press

Green's selection could turn into the most pivotal for the Steelers' draft class.

Opportunities to select a lineman existed before the third round. Oklahoma State's Teven Jenkins, Texas' Samuel Cosmi and Notre Dame's Liam Eichenberg all fell between the Harris and Freiermuth selections. Each lineman mentioned will compete for starting tackle jobs this fall, with all three projected to start as rookies.

Considering the Steelers have serious concerns at both tackle spots, those prospects should have taken priority over a running back, especially with quality running back options like Ohio State's Trey Sermon and North Carolina's Michael Carter likely to be on the board later in the process.

Chukwuma Okorafor moves from right to left tackle. Okorafor is a natural athlete, which should make the transition easier even though it's not automatic.

"He's such a talented individual," Klemm said. "He's so athletic. The one thing you'd just like to see him is being a little more physical, and that's one of the things, even without pads, we've seen him more willing to be that."

Okorafor has yet to earn a starting job but is being handed one. Zach Banner won the right tackle spot in training camp last year, only to tear the ACL in his right knee in Week 1 and miss the rest of the regular season. Okorafor, who had a solid, albeit unspectacular, 2020 performance, moves to left tackle as Banner reclaims right tackle after a major injury. By the way, Banner has two career starts.

So much uncertainty swirls around the Steelers' front five. The potential exists for the unit to be solid, but the group could easily be a disaster. Even before DeCastro's release, Pro Football Focus ranked Pittsburgh as having the league's 29th-best offensive line.

Myles Garrett, Jadeveon Clowney, Trey Hendrickson, Sam Hubbard, D.J. Reader and Calais Campbell must be licking their chops to play against this line twice in the fall.

Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

Previously, Roethlisberger benefited from having one of the NFL's most stable offensive lines. DeCastro, Pouncey, Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert and even Matt Feiler are all gone. Longtime stability up front creates more time for a passer to throw. A reworked offensive front coupled with a quarterback who presents diminishing skills doesn't often create a winning formula.

Sure, Big Ben threw for 501 yards in that fateful playoff contest against the Browns. So what? Cleveland established a 28-point lead out of the gate, and Pittsburgh had no choice but to throw the ball every down against one of the league's most porous secondaries. The quarterback threw four gut-wrenching interceptions as well.

His career decline is similar to what the team experienced after an 11-0 start before losing five of its last six contests. According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger's yards per attempt decreased from 7.3 in 2018 to 6.0 in 2020 after elbow surgery in September 2019. He graded as the NFL's 24th-best quarterback. He posted the sixth-worst uncatchable pass rate when targeting the sticks or beyond. The aging quarterback hasn't posted a single-game passing grade of 90 or better since the 2015 campaign. His performance against the Browns ranked among the likes of Alex Smith's and Mitchell Trubisky's postseason efforts.

Roethlisberger is the fourth-best quarterback in the AFC North. Overall, the Steelers are behind the Browns and Baltimore Ravens. Pittsburgh's defense should keep it in the thick of things, but this team isn't guaranteed to be a playoff squad thanks to improper roster-building and Roethlisberger's downturn.

An emphasis on the trenches before the skill positions could have saved what is surely Roethlisberger's final year (or two) as the Steelers' starting quarterback.


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.


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