The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2020 season, which started with so much promise, ended with an emphatic thud after Pittsburgh fell to the Cleveland Browns in the wild-card round. After an 11-0 start, the Steelers lost five out of their last six games that included Sunday night’s 48-37 loss to their longtime division rival. After the game, Steelers stalwarts Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey lingered on the bench, creating the idea that a particular era of Pittsburgh football has come to an end.
Roethlisberger said after Sunday’s game that he isn’t sure whether or not he will be back for the 2021 season. While he played at a high level for a large portion of his comeback season, Roethlisberger would be a colossal cap hit for a Pittsburgh team that has very little cap space entering the offseason. If Roethlisberger returns for an 18th season, his salary will have to be adjusted in order to address the team’s other personnel needs.
Let’s assume the soon-to-be 39-year-old Roethlisberger honors the final year of his contract, giving the Steelers at least one more year to try to build a championship team around their future Hall of Fame quarterback. Here are three things they can do this offseason that could make that dream a reality.
Step 1: Find Big Ben’s successor
We know this is easier said than done, but it’s time for the Steelers to put more emphasis on the future of their quarterback position. The current frontrunner to replace Roethlisberger is Mason Rudolph, who threw for 315 yards and two touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s two-point loss to Cleveland in Week 17. Rudolph, who will turn 25 years old in July, is entering the final year of his rookie contract. If Roethlisberger decides to retire either this offseason or the next one, Rudolph would be the heavy favorite to be Pittsburgh’s new starting quarterback, at least for the short term. How well Rudolph does during his first season under center would help determine whether or not he will be the team’s longterm salutation. If Rudolph struggles (which would likely lead to a rocky season for Pittsburgh), the Steelers would likely be in position to draft a quarterback, which is what they did after taking Roethlisberger with the 11th overall pick in the 2004 draft.
While Rudolph could eventually replace Roethlisberger, the Steelers should still consider taking a quarterback in this year’s draft. A possible option is Florida’s Kyle Trask, who completed nearly 69% of his passes with 43 touchdowns and just eight interceptions for the Gators this past fall. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Trask is currently projected as a second-round pick by CBS Sports, though some of our mocks have him landing in Round 1.
Step 2: Fix the running game
In Randy Fichtner’s three years as Pittsburgh’s offensive coordinator, the Steelers’ running game has ranked 31st, 29th and 32nd in the league. The team’s lack of a running game was never more evident than during the second half of the season, when defenses began solely focusing on stopping the Steelers’ short passing game. The Steelers’ running woes was a collaborate failure. Fichtner, as offensive coordinator, deserves some of the blame. So too does Pittsburgh’s offensive line, which dealt with several injuries throughout the course of the season. Starter James Conner struggled to stay healthy, while backups Benny Snell and rookie Anthony McFarland averaged just 3.3 yards per carry. Jaylen Samuels, who rushed for 142 yards back in Pittsburgh’s 2018 win over New England, had just nine rushing attempts in 2020.
More creativity (or possibly a new philosophy) from Pittsburgh’s play-caller will surely help open things up for the running backs. The Steelers would be wise to try to implement the zone rushing attack that Kyle Shanahan has mastered with the 49ers. Pittsburgh’s offensive line will surely add some new pieces during the draft and possibly in free agency. The Steelers’ line will welcome the return of Zach Banner, who suffered a torn ACL in Week 1. Banner may be asked to replace left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who is not expected to be back next season. The Steelers may also be looking for a new center to replace Pouncey if the nine-time Pro Bowler decides to hang up his cleats.
Given their cap restrictions, Pittsburgh will probably let Conner test the market. If Conner signs elsewhere, the Steelers will likely find his replacement via the draft. Possible draft options include the two starting running backs in Monday night’s college football national title game. Alabama’s Najee Harris, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound bulldozer, entered Monday night’s game with 1,387 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. Ohio State’s Trey Sermon, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma, rushed for a school-record 331 yards in leading the Buckeyes to a win over Northwestern in the Big 10 title game. The 6-foot-1 215-pound Sermon followed that effort up with a 193-yard performance in Ohio State’s win over Clemson in the College Football Playoff semi-final. Harris is currently tabbed by CBS Sports as a second-round pick. Sermon is currently projected as a third or fourth-round pick.
Step 3: Lock up Watt and Minkah, plus more
Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick are two reasons why the Steelers may ultimately decide to end the Roethlisberger era. Watt, whose fifth-year option was picked up last spring, will receive a new contract by the time the regular season begins. The team may also try to extend Fitzpatrick, who this season joined Watt as a first-team All-Pro. If they don’t have the cap room to re-sign Fitzpatrick, the Steelers will pick up his fifth-year option, which would keep him under contract through the 2022 season.
The Steelers’ ’21 cap casualties will likely include JuJu Smith-Schuster and Bud Dupree. Smith-Schuster, the team’s leader in receptions last season, will likely receive a hefty offer in free agency. And while Dupree’s injury may limit his offers, the odds of him returning to Pittsburgh are still slim.
Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool will ascend as the Steelers’ top two receivers, with James Washington entering training camp as the Steelers’ No. 3 receiver. An intriguing option to replace Smith-Schuster is LSU’s Terrace Marshall, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound wideout who caught 23 touchdowns during his final two seasons with the Tigers. The Steelers appear to have already found Dupree’s backup in Alex Highsmith, a 2020 third-round pick who played well in relief of Dupree during the final month of the regular season. Look for the Steelers to add depth behind Highsmith and Watt during the offseason.