PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Pittsburgh Steelers left little doubt final spring.
As quarterback Ben Roethlisberger healed from proper elbow surgical procedure, the group he’s helped lead for the higher a part of twenty years dismissed the thought of discovering his eventual inheritor following an 8-8 end, adamant the franchise’s Tremendous Bowl window with Roethlisberger on the controls remained open.
They used free company to usher in tight finish Eric Ebron and veteran lineman Stefen Wisniewski. They spent practically $10 million on fullback and particular groups ace Derek Watt. They drafted vast receiver Chase Claypool within the second spherical. They positioned the franchise tag on outdoors linebacker Bud Dupree.
Almost each resolution pointed towards the Steelers returning to prominence in 2020. And for 3 months, it labored. Roethlisberger performed flawlessly at occasions throughout an 11-0 begin.
The protection continued to wreak havoc in opposing backfields, main the NFL in sacks for a fourth straight 12 months within the course of. Claypool appeared very very similar to probably the greatest rookies within the league.
Nonetheless, the indicators of weak spot had been there throughout that giddy stretch. Slim wins towards groups led by Jeff Driskel (Denver), Garrett Gilbert (Dallas) and Robert Griffin III (Baltimore). An occasional challenge with giving up the large play. A working sport that began off enough earlier than disappearing virtually solely.
Then, all of it fell aside. 4 losses within the remaining 5 video games to finish the common season adopted by an embarrassing 48-37 beatdown at dwelling by Cleveland within the wild-card spherical. Whereas the numbers look good on paper — a 12-5 remaining report and an AFC North title — the distress of the final six weeks erased all the great vibes that got here earlier than.
“We had been a gaggle that died on the vine,” coach Mike Tomlin stated.
A loss Roethlisberger and good good friend and longtime heart Maurkice Pouncey mourned on the bench late Sunday evening, questioning if their extremely profitable partnership was in its remaining moments.
“I hate that it ended the best way it did,” Roethlisberger stated. “I simply needed to apologize to (Pouncey) that I needed to win it for him.”
Roethlisberger careworn he was simply speaking concerning the season. Nonetheless, it’s truthful to marvel if the period of exceptional success that started when he jogged onto the sphere in Baltimore to exchange an injured Tommy Maddox on Sept. 19, 2004, is over too.
The 38-year-old Roethlisberger’s present deal lasts by way of the 2021 season. Whereas the two-time Tremendous Bowl winner will take the offseason to weigh his choices, he has continuously identified that he has performed by way of the whole thing of each contract he’s ever signed.
“I hope the Steelers need me again, if that’s the best way we go,” he stated. “There shall be numerous discussions.”
Not all of them will heart across the future Corridor of Famer.
SALARY CAP COMPLICATIONS
After kicking the can down the highway financially for years, the invoice could lastly be due.
The listing of pending free brokers consists of Dupree, vast receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, working again James Conner, left sort out Alejandro Villanueva, left guard Matt Feiler, defensive again Mike Hilton and defensive sort out Tyson Alualu.
Whereas Smith-Schuster insists he desires to remain, there’s a really actual likelihood he could have priced himself out of the marketplace for a group that’s already an estimated $13 million over the projected 2021 cap with Smith-Schuster and firm off the books.
Restructuring big-dollar contracts akin to Roethlisberger’s and defensive sort out Cam Heyward’s would possibly ease a little bit of the ache. Nonetheless the Steelers must get extraordinarily inventive to discover a option to pay Smith-Schuster what he probably would command on the open market, significantly whereas the group additionally finds a option to work out a long-term cope with All-Professional outdoors linebacker T.J. Watt, who will command a large increase after main the NFL with 15 sacks.
RUNNING IN PLACE
In mid-November, Tomlin boasted Pittsburgh’s offense “might give it to you nevertheless you need it.”
Not likely. The Steelers completed final within the NFL in each yards speeding and yards per carry. That imbalance allowed opponents to mainly ignore Conner and Benny Snell Jr. and focus their consideration on disrupting the timing within the short-passing sport. It’s not a coincidence that Roethlisberger threw 4 picks over the primary 10 video games and 10 during the last seven.
Conner continued to have harm points pop up. Snell was wildly erratic. The offensive line appeared overwhelmed when requested to mash as a substitute of drop again into cross safety.
There isn’t a inheritor obvious at left sort out for Villanueva and the thought of the road creating cohesion within the working sport — one thing it hasn’t actually had for the reason that first half of the 2018 season — appears a stretch. There’s no cash to splurge on a longtime veteran in free company, making including expertise and depth within the draft a precedence.
THE STANDARD IS THE STANDARD
The Steelers haven’t endured a shedding season since 2003, the longest lively streak within the NFL, a exceptional achievement contemplating the wage cap is designed to create parity. That sustained success is a part of what units Pittsburgh aside.
But the Steelers additionally play in a convention the place the 4 groups enjoying in the course of the divisional spherical are led by quarterbacks 25 and youthful. Three of them — Buffalo’s Josh Allen, Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson — are nonetheless on their first contracts, which provides their respective groups cash to construct round them.
If Roethlisberger and his $41 million cap hit return, that probably received’t be the case in Pittsburgh.
The Steelers went all-in this season and nonetheless haven’t received a playoff sport since Barack Obama was president. They’ve allowed 37 factors or extra in every of their previous three postseason defeats, losses through which they by no means as soon as led.
They’ve been good for a very long time. They haven’t been nice since falling to Inexperienced Bay within the Tremendous Bowl a decade in the past. That’s not the last word customary in Pittsburgh. They usually realize it.
“Our report is our report,” Tomlin stated. “Our performances are our performances. Don’t run away from that.”
Possibly, however it is likely to be time to simply accept it.
Extra AP NFL protection: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL