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Steelers Keep Winning but Pittsburgh Has a Ben Roethlisberger Problem

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystOctober 18, 2021

PITTSBURGH, PENNSYLVANIA - OCTOBER 17: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers looks to pass during the second quarter against the Seattle Seahawks at Heinz Field on October 17, 2021 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers are 3-3 and still in the thick of the AFC North in spite of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger

The 39-year-old quarterback looks like every other middle-aged dad who thinks they can still play the game as they once did and be the hero each and every weekend. Instead, they're usually winded early, make too many mistakes and leave the game still talking about how great they once were. 

The Steelers needed overtime Sunday at Heinz Field to beat the Seattle Seahawks 23-20 despite Russell Wilson's absence thanks to an injured finger.

In the victory, Roethlisberger threw for 229 yards and a touchdown but averaged a pitiful 5.7 yards per attempt. To place the last number in context, 24 of the league's starting quarterbacks—including Washington's backup-turned-starter Taylor Heinicke and New England Patriots rookie Mac Jones—average over 7.0 yards per attempt. 

Really, Roethsliberger handed the game to the Seahawks. Geno Smith's ineptitude when he had opportunities to lead his team to a victoryprimarily due to T.J. Watt's outstanding effortis the only reason the Steelers found their way back to a .500 record after a 1-3 start. 

On two different occasions, the Seahawks had the chance to put the game away in the fourth quarter because of Roethlisberger's blunders.

With the game tied at 17 and the Steelers on their side of the field, the aging gunslinger tried to do what he's done thousands of times before: He pumped the ball to give his receivers more time to become available. This time, the football slipped out of his hand with the Seahawks defensive lineman Kerry Hyder Jr. covering the lost pigskin, though officials originally ruled it an incomplete pass. 

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Roethlisberger simply didn't maintain ball security, with Seattle in prime position at Pittsburgh's 35-yard line to capitalize. Fortunately for the Steelers quarterback, his defense bailed him out by knocking the Seahawks out of field-goal position. Why? Seattle never tried to push the ball downfield. 

As if that wasn't bad enough, Pittsburgh got the ball back and started what looked to be the game-winning drive with 5:19 left in the fourth quarter. They managed to take the lead on a field goal, but Seattle bounced back in the final 1:30 to tie the game again. However, the game should have never needed those exchange of field goals. On his last drive in regulation, Roethlisberger threw one of the worst turnover-worthy passes anyone will ever see. Somehow, three-time Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams never saw the pass, which hit him directly in the facemask.

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The pass wasn't even close to Diontae Johnson, who happened to be running an in-breaking route. If Adams had been aware of the ball's location and plucked what should have been an easy interception, the ending of the contest could have been very different.

Again, Roethlisberger made game-crippling mistakes only to see Pittsburgh come out on top. The Steelers did so with the help of Watt's sack on Seattle's initial overtime drive to push the Seahawks out of Pittsburgh territory. Big Ben and Co. did absolutely nothing on the subsequent drive. Smith had the ball again and tried to make a play by breaking the pocket only for Watt to retrace and force the strip-sack. Pittsburgh positioned the ball for kicker Chris Boswell, who converted the game-winning 37-yard field goal.

No one can deny Roethlisberger's importance to the Steelers organization, what he's done for the franchise in the past and the fact he's still the team's best starting option. The final point doesn't mean he's good, though. He's not. While his short game remains highly effective, Roethlisberger can't push the ball downfield with any consistency or accuracy.

Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats

Ben Roethlisberger completed all 19 of his short passes (0-9 air yards) for 138 yards and a TD (+21.0% CPOE). Roethlisberger's 19 short completions were the most without an incompletion in the NGS era (since 2016). #SEAvsPIT | #HereWeGo https://t.co/tjkoqhBFee

Even so, opposing defenses will let Roethlisberger work underneath all day long because they're not threatened. Instead, they can restrict the field and make life harder for everyone else in Pittsburgh's offense. 

Heading into the matchup, Roethlisberger averaged only 6.5 yards per attempt, which will go down after tonight's performance. The Steelers have weapons. Chase Claypool can be a dynamic downfield target, yet he caught only two passes for 17 yards Sunday. He wasn't alone, as not a single Pittsburgh target averaged more than 9.0 yards per reception. 

Furthermore, the limitations within the passing game have affected Najee Harris. He has developed into a steady check-down option, but he's a first-round running back. According to ESPN's Brooke Pryor, this year's top-drafted ball-carrier has the most scrimmage yards (632) of any Steeler in history through his first six contests. He's too talented to be averaging 3.7 yards per carry. This year's 24th overall draft pick ranks top five in carries but well behind dozens of backs with his current average. 

To be fair, Pittsburgh's running game isn't entirely the quarterback's fault. The offensive line is soft and doesn't get much movement at the point of attack. The front five has yet to fully coalesce, and it can be much better in multiple areas. However, Roethlisberger's inability to push the ball downfield coupled with his comfort working from shotgun limits what offensive coordinator Matt Canada can call. 

Also, the 18-year-veteran continues to deal with a sore hip that limits his effectiveness. Even so, Roethlisberger has been a Teflon man throughout his career. He could always take a pounding and bounce back, usually by making some type of off-platform throw with defenders hanging all over his lower body. However, he's simply not the same quarterback anymore.

Fred Vuich/Associated Press

Even in the Steelers' three victories, Roethlisberger wasn't particularly good. He averaged 6.9 yards per attempt in those contests with four touchdowns and three fumbles (two lost). Pittsburgh's defense continues to let him off the hook. 

"I need to fight through and figure out how to make better decisions, how to make better throws, be a better football player," Roethlisberger told reporters two weeks ago. "That is why I said I'm not going to quit. I'm not doing that. I'm not giving up on this season. No one in this building is."

What's changed? Nothing really.

Mistakes, diminishing skills and the growing realization the Steelers aren't good enough to be a playoff team despite a two-game winning streak signal Roethsliberger's eventual end as the franchise's starting quarterback. He's no longer good enough to elevate his team where it needs to be, whereas others are trying to do so. The Steelers are a mediocre squad. That's who they are. The organization decided to bring a one-time great back for one more season, and it's proved to be one year too many. 

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

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