Best-, Worst-Case Scenarios for Steelers in the Post-Ben Roethlisberger Era

Alex KayContributor IJanuary 18, 2022

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger walks off the field at the end of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Kansas City Chiefs, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Kansas City, Mo. The Chiefs won 42-21. (AP Photo/Travis Heying)
Travis Heying/Associated Press

The Pittsburgh Steelers' crushing playoff loss to the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday not only ended their season but also an era.

With Ben Roethlisberger all but announcing his retirement and team personnel discussing the game as if it were the final time Big Ben would lace up his cleats, it's clear the quarterback's 18-year run with the organization has reached its end.

Unfortunately for the Steelers, it could also be the end of their consistent postseason appearances for the foreseeable future.

With no heir to Roethlisberger on the roster, Pittsburgh has reached a crossroads.

There is a chance the Steelers can turn things around quickly, but they will need to make some significant moves to ensure future success.

With that in mind, here are the best- and worst-case scenarios for the Steelers in the post-Big Ben era:



Don Wright/Associated Press

After making the playoffs in two-thirds of Roethlisberger's seasons—12 trips in all, including postseason berths in each of the past two years—the Steelers are going to have a tough time staying afloat in a division that is now looking like one of the NFL's best.

One reason the AFC North has become so competitive is that all three of Pittsburgh's divisional rivals have homegrown starting quarterbacks who were selected in the first round within the last half-decade.

The Cincinnati Bengals have emerged as a force with Joe Burrow under center, breaking through and winning the AFC North in just his second season. The club won its first playoff game in 31 years this past weekend and should only improve with experience.

The Baltimore Ravens have already made two trips to the divisional round with 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson at the reins. While Jackson and the Ravens had a down season in 2021—their 8-9 finish marked their worst winning percentage since 2015—they project to be well in the hunt for a fourth playoff appearance in five years during the 2022 campaign.

Even the Cleveland Browns have won more playoff games since drafting Baker Mayfield in 2018 than the Steelers. While Mayfield's future with the organization isn't clear, he did guide Cleveland to its first postseason victory since 1995 last year and has shown promise when healthy.

Pittsburgh has only taken two quarterbacks since the 2014 draft and just one—2018 third-rounder Mason Rudolph—is still on the active roster.

Unfortunately, neither Rudolph nor fellow backup Dwayne Haskins, who was picked up following his release from Washington, has shown the potential to be anything more than a depth option for the Steelers. Rudolph has gone a middling 5-4-1 in 10 starts, completing just 61.5 percent of his passes for 2,366 yards and 16 touchdowns against 11 interceptions while taking 16 sacks. Haskins hasn't seen the field since the 2020 campaign, but he went a pitiful 3-10 in his starts, completing only 60.1 percent of his passes for 2,804 yards and 12 touchdowns with 14 picks and a concerning 49 sacks.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

It's obvious the Steelers have to either hit on a first-rounder or swing a blockbuster trade for an established veteran to find a QB to build the offense around.

While there have been trade rumors surrounding stars like Russell Wilson, it's unlikely a signal-caller of his caliber will truly become available this offseason. Even if Wilson or another top-end quarterback does hit the market, the Steelers would have to beat out a slew of suitors to acquire them.

That leaves the draft as the only real option Pittsburgh has at its disposal to jump-start a rebuild this spring. Because of that, the Steelers must not neglect the quarterback position with their top pick. They could potentially still strike out by waiting until No. 20, their locked-in draft position after losing in the Wild Card Round, to get their guy.

The AFC North is too competitive and too talented for the Steelers to contend while deploying a veteran retread or a developmental project.

If the Steelers don't end up with a QB until Day 2 or later—or, worse, reach for a lower-tier prospect after whiffing on the best ones—it could be rough sledding for the foreseeable future.



Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

The Steelers should be all-in on finding the best fit amongst the handful of quarterbacks worth picking on Day 1 of the 2022 draft. One option is homegrown product Kenny Pickett (B/R Scouting Report) out of Pittsburgh when they're on the clock.

Pickett has thrived in a pro-style offense for the last three years. He's accurate and athletic, using that ability to make plays outside of the pocket. Roethlisberger was one of the best at creating on the move in his prime, and Pickett could take up the mantle if he becomes the future Hall of Famer's successor. 

Unfortunately, Bleacher Report's NFL Scouting Department recently projected Pickett to go to the Washington Football Team at No. 11, nine picks ahead of Pittsburgh. Washington is one of several teams selecting ahead of the Steelers that also have finding a franchise quarterback at the top of the to-do list.

Whether the Steelers decide to make a run at Pickett or choose someone else, such as Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder (B/R Scouting Report), they will want to trade up to improve their odds of landing the signal-caller they want. That move could cost Pittsburgh heavily, but the price of moving up in the first round will pay dividends in the form of future success. 

The Steelers cannot bank on a high-end prospect falling down the board. While that strategy recently worked out for the New England Patriots when they had Mac Jones slide to them at No. 15, the 2022 draft isn't as deep with first-round quarterbacks.

Ridder and Pickett were the only two QBs off the board within the first 32 selections in B/R's recent mock.

Jeff Dean/Associated Press

Pittsburgh is a bit light on draft picks this year after trading away fourth-, fifth- and sixth-round selections, but the team does have its own first-, second- and third-rounders in this draft and each upcoming one.

There should be enough in the Steelers' war chest to get a deal done that would move them up into a position where they can't miss on their chosen prospect, and hitting on a QB in this draft will greatly accelerate the post-Roethlisberger rebuild.

While the 2022 campaign is likely to be a trying one as the squad tries to integrate its rookie signal-caller or grow them behind a bridge starter like Rudolph, the future in the Steel City will be much brighter.

The blueprint for the Steelers' return to prominence is already laid out, as there have been plenty of early-career success stories in recent seasons. Quarterbacks such as Mac Jones, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Kyler Murray, Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson have all significantly elevated their respective franchises after being selected in the first round within the last four years.

With someone like Ridder or Pickett at the helm of Pittsburgh's offense, there's strong reason to believe the Steelers could join that group and start contending again in the near future.