Heartbreaking Loss to Vikings Should Kickstart Rebuild Process for Steelers

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystDecember 10, 2021

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) throws the ball during the second half of an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021 in Minneapolis. Minnesota won 36-28. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)
Stacy Bengs/Associated Press

It has been a tumultuous week for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Last Sunday, the Steelers won a last-second thriller against the rival Baltimore Ravens that gave the team's wobbly playoff aspirations a boost. That came not long after reports that the 2021 season would be the last for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

Well, if Thursday's loss in Minnesota was any indication, Roethlisberger might just want to call it a career now and let Mason Rudolph get flattened the rest of the season. After falling to the Vikings 36-28 in a game that may have included the single most lopsided half in the NFL this year, some things have become abundantly, painfully clear.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are not going to the playoffs in 2021.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a flawed team on both sides of the ball. Deeply, in some respects.

The long era of success enjoyed by Roethlisberger and head coach Mike Tomlin is over.

Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

And once the 2021 Steelers are put out of their misery and Roethlisberger limps off into the sunset, the Steelers are going to be looking at a rebuild the likes of which the franchise hasn't seen in many, many years.

After last week's win against the Ravens, Roethlisberger did his best to downplay the hoopla about his potential retirement.

"I haven't told everybody that [I'm retiring]," he said. "Honestly, we just got done with this game. I'm exhausted. We play in a couple hours it feels like, so that's my focus. My focus is on Minnesota and what we have to do to get ready. I'll address any of that stuff after the season. I've always been a one-game-at-a-time, one-season-at-a-time person."

That the 39-year-old would be strongly considering retirement isn't exactly news. After 18 seasons, it has become plainly evident that years of hits have taken their toll. Big Ben is a shell of the player he once was. His arm strength is limited. His mobility is completely gone.

But Roethlisberger's shortcomings as a passer don't even scratch the surface of why things went so terribly wrong in the first half at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Thursday's game was all but over at intermission. The Vikings dominated the first half as completely and thoroughly as a half can be dominated. At halftime, the Vikings had 300 yards of offense, as opposed to 66 for the Steelers. The Vikings rushed the ball 18 times over the first 30 minutes—for 176 yards.

The Steelers didn't score until there were just over two minutes left in the third quarter. Yes, the game tightened up late, because heaven forbid Minnesota just blow a team out. But the game was so much more lopsided than the final score. The first half was an abysmal showing from a team that fashions itself as a playoff contender.

And all of Pittsburgh's problems were laid bare for the world to see.

For starters, Pittsburgh's offensive line is an absolute disaster. This is not a new development. The Steelers fielded one of the NFL's worst lines last year and ranked dead last in the league in rushing. Rather than address that line in the first round of the 2021 draft, Pittsburgh elected to draft Alabama running back Najee Harris.

To his credit, Harris has been solid, including a two-touchdown effort against the Vikings on Thursday. But that's been because of his talent, not any help he's gotten from an offensive line that entered Week 14 ranked 28th by Football Outsiders.

That ranking isn't going up after the Steelers allowed five sacks against Minnesota—including multiple in the first half when free rushers pasted Roethlisberger.

Minnesota Vikings @Vikings

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There's blame to go around on the other side of the ball, too. For what seems like forever, the Steelers have been known for having one of the best defenses in the league.

Not this year. Not even close.

Yes, Pittsburgh began Week 14 leading the NFL in sacks. But the Steelers entered Thursday evening 22nd in total defense, 27th in run defense and 21st in scoring defense.

Those rankings aren't going up, either. Not after allowing a 200-yard game on the ground to Vikings running back Dalvin Cook. Not after surrendering 458 total yards and 36 points.

Oh, and with star edge-rusher T.J. Watt on the shelf with a groin injury, the Steelers didn't even get a sack.

Again, these aren't new issues. Pittsburgh's run defense has been bad all year, and of late, it has been terrible—especially early.

Sportsnet Stats @SNstats

Steelers have allowed 348 rushing yards in the 1st half over their last 3 games.

That this game was remotely close says a lot more about Minnesota's pathological need to play in one-score games every week no matter what than it does about Pittsburgh being more than mediocre.

To recap, the Steelers can't block a lick. They can't play defense, at least not as a whole. Their aging quarterback is probably a goner after the season. But other than that, everything is fine.

And if you think things are bad now, they are probably about to get worse.

The offensive line essentially needs to be completely rebuilt. That's not going to happen overnight, even if the team can hit on a mid-round draft gem at the position. The defense has some pieces in Watt, defensive lineman Cameron Heyward and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, but the cornerbacks and inside linebacker groups both need major work.

Now, Pittsburgh has over $43 million in cap space next year, per Over The Cap—money that could be used to fill a hole or three. But the Steelers have never had a reputation as big spenders on the open market, the team has free agents of its own to sign (albeit none that will break the bank), and even if they did want to spend some cash in free agency, there's still another massive issue looming over the Steel City.

The Steelers have no future at quarterback.

We have seen enough of Mason Rudolph to know that he's not any kind of solution. We haven't seen Dwayne Haskins much in black and gold, but we've seen enough of him in the NFL to know he isn't, either. Pittsburgh isn't trading for Russell Wilson or Deshaun Watson.

Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

And while the Steelers may not be a playoff team, they also are too good to get the high draft pick required for an elite prospect in 2022.

Assuming Roethlisberger retires after this season (and it's time), that probably means a veteran stopgap in 2022. Maybe a Day 2 pick spent on a signal-caller. An even worse next year than this year. And then hopefully a franchise quarterback of the future in 2023. It's either that or hope for a home run pick a la Lamar Jackson or Russell Wilson who wildly outperforms his draft slot.

Hope is not a strategy. For every Jackson, there's a Haskins. For every Wilson, a Brock Osweiler.

As we head into the final month of the regular season, that's the reality of where the Steelers are. There isn't going to be some magical run into the playoffs and on to Los Angeles. Roethlisberger isn't going out like Peyton Manning.

The Pittsburgh Steelers aren't a bad football team. But they aren't an especially good one.

And given the state of the franchise, it's going to take time to get better.