PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t joking when he said he planned to disappear after retirement.
Maybe, but the specter of the player who defined the Pittsburgh Steelers for nearly two decades looms over the franchise in 2022.
Following a likely future Hall of Famer is a daunting task. The Steelers signed Mitch Trubisky in free agency and drafted Kenny Pickett in the first round, won over by the former University of Pittsburgh star’s insurgent Heisman Trophy-campaign in 2021.
Trubisky, who spent four turbulent years in Chicago before serving as Josh Allen’s backup in Buffalo last fall, isn’t trying to replace Roethlisberger as much as he’s trying to simply revive his career.
“I can only come here and be me, Mitch Trubisky,” he said as training camp began. “I’m coming here to compete, help lead these guys and do what I do on the field.”
Trubisky will likely get the first shot when the Steelers open at Cincinnati on Sept. 11, though Pickett has made a significant push during the preseason. Both quarterbacks have an ability to make plays with their legs as well as their arms, a dimension the offense lacked during the latter years of Roethlisberger’s career.
Whoever the quarterback is will need to have the ability to make something out of nothing while playing behind a retooled offensive line that may take a significant amount of time to figure things out.
“We’re still building in the right direction,” Trubisky said. “So, we’ve got to keep going.”
Trubisky will need to if he wants to hold onto the job for a while. Pickett, considered the most NFL-ready quarterback in a relatively weak draft class, has spent his first training camp impressing with his both maturity and his playmaking.
Coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Matt Canada have brought Pickett along slowly, though he has passed seemingly every test thrown his way, including engineering scores in hurry-up situations against Detroit and Jacksonville.
“It’s probably who he is,” Tomlin said. “I know he did it next door (in college at Pitt). He probably did it in high school. He probably did it in little league. Some things people are born with.”
If Pickett continues to show the “it” factor, Trubisky’s grasp of the starting job — if he is the choice — may be tenuous at best.
Tomlin seemed almost gleeful at times during the offseason when talking about facing a challenge he never needed to worry about during his first 15 years on the job, when all he had to do was jot down Roethlisberger’s familiar No. 7 atop the depth chart and not worry about it.
“You’re excited about the anxiety associated with that uncertainty,” he said.
There figures to be plenty of it over the next four months as the Steelers try to forge a new identity while attempting to meet the same rigid expectations.
“There’s a lot more pressure on (the quarterbacks) right now, but it’s up to the defense and other parts of the offense to step up to make it easy,” Pro Bowl defensive end Cam Heyward said.
“HEAD COACH” FLORES
The Steelers made a splash in the offseason by hiring former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores as a senior defensive assistant just weeks after Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL for alleged racist hiring practices.
The legal battle between Flores and the league is still in its early stages. Flores is attempting to focus on the task at hand, namely helping Tomlin and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin put together a defense that has more of a snarl than it did last season, when the Steelers finished last against the run.
Flores has quickly won over his new charges with his intensity and military-type attention to detail.
“He has so much knowledge and understanding of the game that other coaches might not have,” linebacker Rob Spillane said. “And you don’t become a head coach in this league by accident. He’s done a lot of things right over his career to get to where he is today. … I’m grateful to be able to work with him.”
RUN NAJEE RUN
Najee Harris set a franchise rookie record when he ran for 1,200 yards last season. The 24-year-old — who also caught 73 passes a year ago — wouldn’t mind taking on an even heavier workload in 2022.
Harris has already taken on a heavier workload in the locker room while showing signs of helping fill the leadership void created by Roethlisberger’s retirement.
‘It’s just him, it’s in his personality,” Tomlin said “I imagine he’s been that on every team he’s ever been on in his lifetime. So it is a natural act for him.”
All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt is coming off a season in which he signed a massive new contract then backed it up by winning his first NFL Defensive Player of the Year award after tying a league record by rolling up 22 1/2 sacks.
Watt is building a Hall of Fame resume and is in the middle of his prime. Yet he knows there’s only one way to secure your legacy while playing for a team that has six Lombardi Trophies gracing a display the players walk by nearly every day.
“We’ve got to win a Super Bowl,” Watt said.
A standard in Pittsburgh that never changes, regardless of the quarterback.
“I don’t imagine that I would have to remind them (of that),” Tomlin said, “but I do anyway.”