PITTSBURGH (AP) — Success came so easily for Ben Roethlisberger early in his career, he could be forgiven if he thought it would last forever.
Yet nearly 17 years after his NFL debut, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback can still hear the words of former teammate Chad Scott ringing in his ears.
“(He) got up in front of the team and was like, “Listen, I’ve been doing this a long time and there’s no guarantees you’re ever going to make the playoffs again,’” Roethlisberger said. “So, I think every guy needs to take that approach, that (2021) could be the last chance you have.”
For many of the Steelers, it might be. the now 39-year-old Roethlisberger included.
Pittsburgh resisted the chance to blow up the roster during the offseason, tinkering with it instead of overhauling it following an embarrassing home playoff loss to Cleveland.
Roethlisberger opted for a pay cut (on paper) to come back for an 18th season even after center Maurkice Pouncey and tight Vance McDonald both retired, guard David DeCastro was released, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva left for Baltimore in free agency and good friend Randy Fichtner didn’t return as the team’s offensive coordinator following a season in which the Steelers finished last in the NFL in rushing.
Roethlisberger insists his decision to return was not driven by vanity or greed, but by his love for the game and the belief there’s still plenty of life left in his right arm now that he’s nearly two years removed from right elbow surgery.
Still, Pittsburgh’s mandate over the offseason was trying to take some of the pressure off Roethlisberger to do it all. The Steelers used the 24th overall pick to take former Alabama star running back Najee Harris, promoted Matt Canada from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator and used the three selections after Harris (tight end Pat Freiermuth, center Kendrick Green and tackle Dan Moore Jr.) on players who could conceivably create space for Harris to do his thing.
“All four of those guys are really football guys who have come in and acted like pros,” Canada said. “From a coaching perspective, we’re very happy with the way they work at it. Very happy.”
The hope is Harris’ arrival and a scheme that will include having Roethlisberger line up under center — a concept that basically vanished while Fichtner called the plays — will revive a rushing attack that finished last in the NFL in both yards and yards per carry in 2020.
A little bit of balance could go a long way toward helping the Steelers stay in the playoff mix in one of the NFL’s most competitive divisions and make their decision to retool instead of reboot look like a wise one.
In wide receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, Pittsburgh has the talent and the speed to stretch the field. It’s something the Steelers struggled to do last season. Roethlisberger averaged a career-worst 6.3 yards per attempt and had just seven completions of 40 yards or more. Part of the blame fell on the running game, which was so ineffective Fichtner and Roethlisberger turned to short passes in an attempt to move the ball.
Roethlisberger is adamant he still has the arm strength to chuck it deep. He’ll have plenty of options in a group that has plenty at stake personally, particularly Smith-Schuster. The four-year veteran and social media star opted to return on a one-year deal rather than leave in free agency, eager to prove his meager 8.6 yards per reception was a product of the system, not his own ability.
All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt has become one of the NFL’s most dominant edge rushers in his four seasons. His effectiveness in 2021 could depend on how Alex Highsmith develops in his first season as a full-time starter after Bud Dupree headed to Tennessee in the offseason. The Steelers took a flier on nine-year veteran Melvin Ingram to provide depth on the outside if Highsmith falters.
A mid-August trade for Joe Schobert gives Devin Bush — recovering from a torn ACL that cut short his second season — an experienced running mate at inside linebacker after Vince Williams retired and Robert Spillane struggled during training camp.
FIVE FOR FIGHTING?
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has resisted anointing specific starters along the offensive line, and with good reason. The unit remains very much a work in progress with a Week 1 visit to Buffalo looming.
Zach Banner, expected to return to the starting right tackle spot a year removed from knee surgery, has been slowed during camp. If Banner can’t go, there’s a very real chance Chuks Okorafor moves from left tackle to right, leaving Moore to protect Roethlisberger’s blind side.
The interior line lacks fewer questions, with Kevin Dotson at left guard, Green at center and former Pro Bowler Trai Turner replacing DeCastro at right guard. Green has spent much of his summer watching videotape of Pouncey, marveling at Pouncey’s physicality. A little bit of violence in his own approach to the game could go a long way toward determining whether Green is a long-term solution.
A DIFFICULT ROAD
Pittsburgh’s reward for a division title and the best start in franchise history (11-0) is a schedule that statistically is the toughest in the NFL.
Trips to Buffalo, Kansas City and Green Bay as well as visits by Seattle and Tennessee — not to mention the typical foray into what Tomlin likes to call “AFC North ball” — will make it challenging for the Steelers to return to the postseason.
Four of Pittsburgh’s first six games will be at Heinz Field and the Steelers will have to take advantage if they want a little bit of wiggle room down the stretch. The final month features four games against teams — the Chiefs, Titans, Browns and Ravens — that all made the playoffs in 2020.