Steelers are lost between winning now and preparing for a rebuild, and it’s very ugly

This Steelers team has a lot of soul-searching to do. What do they want to be in 2021? And what about 2022?

Amidst another off-season filled with promises and excitement, the Pittsburgh Steelers have nothing but a 7-7-1 record to show for it. They wanted to win now with Ben Roethlisberger before he called it a career, but didn’t (or couldn’t – or wouldn’t) do what it would have actually taken to win now.

The result is a mediocre record and a middling team, one that doesn’t really appear built to win now — and one that appears to have both eyes looking at the future for when Roethlisberger retires.

I mean, does this look like a team that can seriously contend in the playoffs?

Didn’t think so.

So winning now? That seems to be off the table.

But they brought back their 39-year-old quarterback, pushing a rebuild out at least another year. And with coach Mike Tomlin speaking vehemently against going after a rookie quarterback, the team would appear to be on a trajectory to transition to Mason Rudolph or a veteran addition in the offseason.

Their cap situation is primed to be more favorable next season. But bringing in another veteran quarterback carries with it implications of wanting to win now. And, if I haven’t made that clear by now, this current roster is not built to win now. What’s the logical next step then?

A rebuild in 2022.

Albeit, it will be a revamp of moderate proportions. But a rebuild nonetheless. The fact that they didn’t go all-in on the 2021 season — when they were supposedly going to make a big Super Bowl push in honor of Ben Roethlisberger’s final season — shows they’re preparing for that rebuild.

Tomlin is a good coach. The Steelers have some incredible players. They certainly have one of the better reputations in the league. But what is their goal? What do they want to achieve? Is it yet another season of managing to win more games than they lose? Or is their ultimate destination standing on a platform hoisting the Lombardi trophy?

It felt like they didn’t really know their answer to these questions before they entered this season. They were straddling two different philosophies: win now and rebuild. As a result, they don’t seem to have done either successfully. They put together a half-baked, half-effort attempt at a Super Bowl run — while keeping from jeopardizing their future.

Millions of dollars of cap space sat untouched, and the young offensive line undisturbed, even after it proved untrustworthy. The play-calling remains stale and uninspired week after week, and the head coach has nothing to say on the matter other than vague comments in support. Primed for another early-round playoff exit (or missing altogether), this team is a tremendously confusing disappointment. If the Steelers’ brass want to see improvement in the years to come, they need to own (and know) what they are. And what needs to be done.

They can’t keep avoiding one and neglecting what’s required for the other. When the offseason rolls around, they must decide: Rebuild. Or win now.

They need to pinpoint their issues and start addressing them in a cohesive way. Otherwise things may stay ugly for a while.

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Steelers offense is finding its identity in the most surprising place

Despite an aging quarterback, a rookie running back, and a questionable line, the Pittsburgh Steelers have finally begun to find their offensive identity.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have finally begun to find their offensive identity. For all the offseason talk of a supposedly weak offensive line, an aging quarterback and rookies at skill positions, things are starting to click in ways not even Steelers’ superfans could have imagined.

And it’s all starting with that so-called weak line.

With the exception of a handful of mistakes by young guys still finding their way, this offensive line has been the source of the Steelers’ offensive success. They struggled early and struggled often, but as we approach the halfway point of the season they’re finding their form and playing to their potential. Their mistakes are becoming fewer, their successes are more regular. In turn, the Steelers have returned to their run-first approach, opening up things in the air for their 39-year-old quarterback.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement, but it’s worth celebrating when they do things they wouldn’t have even come close to sniffing through the first few games. Like this progression:

They moved as a unit. They didn’t back down. They created holes for Najee to exploit. He did just that.

All day.

Harris had 26 carries for 91 yards and a rushing touchdown. That would not have happened if the line hadn’t set up Harris, even if the rookie has been a behemoth of a back in his rookie year.

And that’s all before taking into account the contributions from Diontae Johnson:

Even more notably, tight end Pat Freiermuth was a beast:

There will continue to be growing pains for this offense. But they are certainly trending in the right direction at the right time. And if they can keep heating up despite the winter weather, they may still have some playoff-push left in them.

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32 potential trade targets, one from every NFL team

Highlighting one player that could be traded from each NFL team before Week 1.

Trades within the NFL are commonplace during the month of August. Teams must consistently trim rosters, and occasionally a trade makes more sense than a cut.

Trade talk around the league will heat up over the next week as all 32 teams decide how to get rosters down to 53 players. Teams with excess at one position can help out another with a need. For instance, just this week, the New England Patriots sent running back Sony Michel to the Los Angeles Rams for draft pick compensation.

Here is one player from each NFL team that could be traded soon:

Why Pittsburgh Steelers HC Mike Tomlin doesn’t care about Najee Harris

What’s best for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Mike Tomlin right now may not be best for Najee Harris’ career longevity.

The number one job of any head coach is to do what’s best for his team. This coach, in particular, happens to be Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, and what may be best for his team could very well come via the ground game.

The Steelers drafted Najee Harris in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft to revive a last-ranked run game. Now entering his 18th season, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is in the twilight of his career and needs a run game to be successful season-long.

Why doesn’t Tomlin care about Harris? Tomlin, who signed a three-year contract extension in April, keeps him in Pittsburgh through the 2024 season. In all likelihood, Tomlin won’t be around to see the end of Harris’ career or need him to be productive.

Tomlin ran Le’Veon Bell until his wheels fell off. Bell hasn’t been productive since he left Pittsburgh in a greedy tizzy. You can’t blame Tomlin — the organization and its fans tend to not care about a player once he’s no longer in the Black and Gold, anyway.

If history repeats itself with Tomlin and his star running back, Najee Harris will get the ball early and often. And it won’t be long until we’re saying Harris isn’t the same back he was early in his career.

And that career — especially for NFL running backs — isn’t long. According to Statista, the life of a running back is 2.57 years. For example, Bell had three seasons over 1,000 yards in the five years with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mike Tomlin will want to squeeze as much juice out of the Najee Harris lemon that he can. And when Tomlin retires, Harris will seemingly be a shadow of what he once was.

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3 reasons why Mason Rudolph will never be franchise QB for Steelers, elsewhere

Steelers’ Mason Rudolph is a high-end backup/low-level starter, but not the answer that the Steelers will need long-term.

This season is presumed to be the last of Ben Roethlisberger’s career — a daunting prospect considering Roethlisberger has been the lifeblood of the Steelers for the past 17 seasons, and there appears to be no plan for a long-term successor.

Internally, president Art Rooney II, general manager Kevin Colbert, and head coach Mike Tomlin cannot seriously look at Mason Rudolph as the heir to the quarterback throne.

Rudolph was served that opportunity on a silver platter in 2019 — he had chances to prove he was worthy of being the legit next in line. But inconsistency — among other things — reared its ugly head.

Can Rudolph improve? Sure. With proper development and mindset, he could be a decent quarterback; he just doesn’t have the talent that Terry Bradshaw or Big Ben has.

In all fairness, Rudolph’s sample size is nine starts in 15 games; hardly enough to predict the future of a career. But in those games, he’s been far from convincing that he can carry the Steelers franchise for the next 10-plus seasons.

For 2022, however, it appears the job is Rudolph’s to lose. Not only is he the only quarterback under contract for the 2022 season (Roethlisberger’s future years are voidable), but anyone else brought in next offseason will lack the team experience to start immediately.

In June, Rudolph was quoted as saying that it’s his goal “to be a starting quarterback in this league, and for my team.”

It’s good to have goals, and while Rudolph may wind up starting for the Steelers in 2022, the future isn’t long-term.

Based on what Rudolph has shown thus far in his 15-game career, here’s why he’ll never be a franchise quarterback for the Steelers or anywhere else.

6 reasons why Steelers should go free-agent route for DBs

Pittsburgh has struck out many times when drafting the defensive back position.

It took the Steelers several draft busts before a secondary worth fielding came together, and now it’s coming apart.

The Steelers secondary was a nightmare draft after draft for years — they just didn’t have an eye for spotting young talent, particularly at corner.

You may remember names like Curtis Brown, Shamarko Thomas, Shaquille Richardson, Doran Grant, Senquez Golson, Artie Burns — 158 games between these six defensive backs (jury is still out on former first-rounder Terrell Edmunds and Marcus Allen, but he converted to linebacker last offseason). These six guys are reason enough to go the free-agent route when looking for an impact defensive back.

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Golson is the standout in the group, and not for a good reason. Selected in the second round of the 2015 NFL draft, Golson never played a down for Pittsburgh — or any team for that matter. Whatever the Steelers saw in him collegiately didn’t translate to the pros, even when healthy. Golson’s first two seasons were spent on injured reserve, and he was cut the week before the 2017 season began.

Pittsburgh scored a gem with street free agent Mike Hilton, temporarily had something with free agent Steven Nelson, and won in a trade with the Dolphins for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

The Steelers are now hoping that 2017 third-round pick Cam Sutton can carry the cornerback position along with (the soon-to-be) 32-year-old Joe Haden.

Colbert and company have had more luck signing street free agents or packaging a trade for defensive backs.

Please do not waste a precious draft pick on a guy you’re only going to cut.

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What the Carson Wentz trade to Colts tells us about the Steelers organization

If Ben Roethlisberger decides to retire or he and the Steelers can’t agree on salary, Pittsburgh will be in a pickle. 

A month after Philip Rivers announced his retirement, the Indianapolis Colts already have his heir apparent. Former Philadelphia Eagles franchise quarterback Carson Wentz was traded to the Colts on Thursday afternoon. The move made me pause and wonder, Why aren’t the Steelers better prepared for if Ben Roethlisberger decides to retire?

Though Rivers’ retirement was unexpected by many, he gave the Colts time to get their ducks in a row. Surprisingly, Andrew Luck retired two weeks before the 2019 season, so Indianapolis had no other choice than to roll with Jacoby Brisset, who had starter experience.

In both situations, Indianapolis had an answer.

If Big Ben decides not to return or he and the Steelers can’t agree on salary, Pittsburgh will be in a pickle.

What the Wentz trade should tell us about the Steelers organization is that they’re comfortable with the potential for mediocrity at the quarterback position. Should Ben hang up his cleats, as Rivers did, Pittsburgh will find itself woefully unprepared. Art Rooney, Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin don’t have a solid game plan for a future without Big Ben. They can’t afford a free agent starter, nor do they have the draft capital to trade for one. And at No. 24, it’s a gamble as to what kind of quarterback they’d get, and, historically, the Steelers are too set in their ways to trade the farm to move up in the draft.

They’d rather roll with Rudolph.

Mason Rudolph hasn’t shown that he’s able to carry a team. Still needing development heading into the fourth year of his career should tell you all you need to know — he’s not the answer to a Roethlisberger-less team. At best, Rudolph is a bandaid that could keep the Steelers from completely imploding. At worst, he’ll be a free agent next March.

Steelers Nation has been spoiled by the caliber of quarterback that Roethlisberger instantly became. And now we’re all left to wonder where our team will be if Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t come back, and even where the franchise will be in the future if he does play for just one more season.

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Steelers ownership will never fire Mike Tomlin, and here’s why

The Steelers 2020 season was barely over when the “Fire Tomlin” cries started on social media.

The Steelers 2020 season was barely over when the “fire Tomlin” cries started on social media — there are select fans from whom it’s never-ending.

For years, I was in the camp of “The Steelers shouldn’t get rid of Mike Tomlin. Who are we gonna get to replace him?!” But I’m beginning to see that being in that camp is being satisfied with the Standard is the Standard. Season after disappointing season — for the last 10 years — the Steelers have standard regular seasons and flop in the postseason — if they make it there.

Perhaps the standard shouldn’t be the standard anymore. Perhaps the bar needs to be set higher. Is Tomlin capable of that? It seems only a fresh perspective from a new head coach could solve the Steelers’ run-of-the-mill seasons — where, if Pittsburgh even makes the playoffs, coaches and players are woefully unprepared, and they exit ungracefully with their heads down.

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A recent article from TribLive’s Tim Benz opened my mind about the Steelers ousting Tomlin. We shouldn’t wonder who is going to replace him. Just trust the process because ownership knows a thing or two.

Benz referenced Matt LaFleur (Packers), Sean McDermott (Bills) and Kevin Stefanski (Browns) to make his case for the caliber of coach the Steelers could get if they went in a different direction. All three are former coordinators who made a successful transition into the head coaching ranks.

 

Tried and true philosophy

While that’s all well and good, we know it’s not going to happen. At least not as long as Tomlin wants to coach. Anyone familiar with the history of the Steelers — and most of us are — know that the Rooney family isn’t going to stray from their head coaching philosophy. It’s one that’s tried and true; management values continuity and familiarity. Ownership isn’t going to fire Mike Tomlin. They haven’t fired a coach in 52 years and they aren’t going to now. The Rooneys will allow Tomlin to coach until he doesn’t want to coach anymore. Why? Because year after year, he’s put the Steelers in a position to win the division and make the playoffs. That’s more than a lot of teams can say.

The Rooneys have never given us a reason to doubt their process for hiring only the best.

Bill Cowher came from Kansas City, where he was the Chiefs defensive coordinator for three seasons. In his first season, the Steelers were 11-5. Chuck Noll was in charge of defensive backs with the Baltimore Colts. It took him three years to turn the Steelers around, but that was a different era, and the team had struggled for decades prior. Mike Tomlin was defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings, and in his first season, Pittsburgh was 10-6 and first in the AFC North. Each one had been on NFL coaching staffs for seven to nine years before they were head coaches. These hires prove that the Rooney’s track record of hiring great, eventual Hall of Fame head coaches — they’ve never given us a reason to doubt that they can do it again.

Who knows how much longer Tomlin will reign in Pittsburgh. His current contract expires along with Ben Roethlisberger’s in 2021. Will they ride off into the sunset together?

If Tomlin retires after next season, he’ll be the same age (49) as Cowher was when he resigned and will have coached for the same span of time (15 years). Noll presided over Pittsburgh for 23 seasons.

Trust the Rooneys to scour the NFL landscape and bring on the right guy after Tomlin retires. As we know, whoever it is will be around for a long, long time.

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Steelers OC Randy Fichtner needs to put on his big boy pants and shoulder the blame for crumbling offense

There’s no question that Big Ben is part of the problem, but the solution starts with the man charged with calling those plays.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Well, it broke officially around Week 12, and there’s no fix in sight.

For the second week in a row, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger takes all of the blame for the team’s offensive struggles. And, like their offense, it’s getting predictable.

“Offensively, we are not very good,” said Roethlisberger in a postgame press conference. “Right now, we are not playing good football, and that starts with me. We all need to look in the mirror, and, like I said, it starts with me.”

There’s no question that Roethlisberger is part of the problem, but the solution starts with the man charged with calling those plays. It’s offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner’s job to … coordinate the offense.

The quarterback’s job is to execute that offense — a tall task when what was once innovative is now unimaginative and lifeless.

A team is only as good as its ability to adapt. The Steelers aren’t adapting, so what does that make them? The loss to the Washington Football Team should’ve been a wake-up call to dig into the playbook and come up with a different approach. That never happened.

Roethlisberger is a sure-fire Hall of Famer, and for the first 11 weeks of the season, he was executing well an offensive scheme that was the opposite of everything he’d known for 16 seasons.

But it’s not working anymore and hasn’t been since Week 12. It’s beyond time for Fichtner to draw up something new that melds with Big Ben’s capabilities and that the offense can win with. If he can’t, Pittsburgh won’t see round two of the playoffs.

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Vance McDonald’s Week 9 contributions weren’t worth the distraction

While the Steelers are no strangers to internal complications, they could’ve easily been avoided.

In a nearly replicate situation to the Baltimore Ravens playing star cornerback Marlon Humphrey in Week 8, the Steelers felt the need to play tight end Vance McDonald in Week 9.

The most significant difference is the Ravens game was home and Humphrey didn’t have to travel. McDonald did. The result is, so far, four additional players have been placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including Ben Roethlisberger.

They all tested negative and, if they continue to test negative throughout the week, should be available for practice Saturday and play on Sunday.

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When ESPN’s Brooke Pryor pressed Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on how the travel determination was made, Tomlin had this to say:

“Those aren’t decisions that are made by us. It’s really cut and dry. It’s all in the COVID procedural policy established in New York by the NFL. As long as [the player] is negative and not showing signs of COVID, he’s able to travel, and [Vance McDonald] was and we did. We don’t overanalyze it that way. We utilize all the mechanisms at our disposal to minimize the potential of interaction. We’re all masked up. We’re all exercising good personal hygiene and social distancing. We’re doing all the things that we are asked. That’s our mindset regarding it.”

Unfortunately, it was a bad judgment call. Instead of heeding caution after what went down in Baltimore last week, the Steelers chose to allow McDonald to travel after being listed on the injury report with an illness the day before.

Contributions to the game

Was Pittsburgh’s decision to have McDonald board the plane and play worth the distractions?

No.

On the Steelers’ first play of the second half’s opening drive, McDonald caught a pass for two yards. That’s it. That was the only time he was targeted and his only contribution to the receiving game. Pittsburgh would go three-and-out and punt.

McDonald’s single pass pro snap was graded at 70.2 by Pro Football Focus, as he didn’t allow any pressure on Big Ben.

NFL should revise its COVID-19 policy

The Steelers did go by the “book.” But that book needs revising. For instance, as Pryor tweeted on Tuesday, NFL’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Allen Sills, says they don’t only rely on testing to rule out whether someone has contracted the virus.

If that is the case, it needs to be made clear to the teams. If a player is ill, especially close to game day (whether traveling or not), as a precaution, he should sit. I understand how it could impact the game, depending on the role of said player. Being prudent could mean the difference between keeping the season to 16 weeks and extending it, or worse, canceling it.

When you don’t bubble up (I don’t blame them for not wanting to), situations like the Ravens and the Steelers, or even the Raiders or Titans, are going to happen again. It’s, unfortunately, inevitable.

The league needs to revise its procedures as to how to appropriately proceed with sick players who test negative. It could very well prevent an outbreak.

Since McDonald was questionable for the game, it’s likely he was still showing signs of the undisclosed illness. If it was the cold or flu, those symptoms can mimic the coronavirus. Although Vance tested negative before the Steelers headed for Dallas, the organization should’ve recalled what happened with Humphrey and thought better than to let him travel.

Pittsburgh is lucky that, so far, McDonald is the only player who tested positive.

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