All week at “Breakfast with Benz,” we’ve been tackling the biggest issues surrounding Pittsburgh’s three pro sports teams as our region’s franchises return to play after a four-month absence thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Steelers will be the last team back. That’s if the NFL can get off the ground in time for the regular season in September.
Assuming that happens, there’s no doubt what the most dominant question of Pittsburgh sports will be heading into this season: What will the Pittsburgh Steelers do in 2020 with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger back at quarterback?
When there are no sports to watch, we’ve got to find something.
In Pittsburgh’s case, it was the waistline of the starting quarterback.
Frankly, I never thought Roethlisberger looked as out of shape as people suggested when he was spotted with the West Virginia Mountaineer.
And I’m not going to pretend he looks like an Adonis now just because he seemed more svelte at a New Castle community food distribution event this week.
During Roethlisberger’s inactivity following his elbow surgery, I’m sure he put on a few pounds. And that dead raccoon on his face probably added a few more.
But don’t we go round and round about Roethlisberger’s physique every year? And don’t we always come back to the same conclusion?
Whatever shape he’s in puts the Steelers in better shape at quarterback than they were before he got here in 2004.
And whatever shape he’s in this season will be immeasurably better than what the Steelers got from the position a season ago.
No offense to Mason Rudolph or Devlin Hodges, but I’ll take big jowls on Big Ben any day over the quarterbacking we saw in 2019.
That’s not to say a return of Roethlisberger will be a fix-all for the Steelers. It won’t be.
As good as Roethlisberger still is — we think — he can’t catch his own passes, block for himself, or run the ball once he hands it off.
All those things were problems on offense in 2019, along with the quarterback play. Especially in the red zone.
The Steelers went from an NFL-best 73.47% red zone efficiency team in 2018 to an NFL-worst 35%.
The club has tried to help Roethlisberger in that regard, acquiring two big pass-catching targets in tight end Eric Ebron and rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool. It also invested in a healthy fullback — Derek Watt — that hopefully will be able to dress and eventually be used more often than they did Roosevelt Nix.
If nothing else — and it should be much more — when Roethlisberger comes back, at least the trips into the red zone should bear fruit more often. And when the team’s stellar defense gets the ball back for the offense, the unit should be able to maintain possession longer than it did a season ago. A third down conversion percentage of 34.36% left Randy Fichtner’s side of the ball 27th overall in the league rankings. Consider some of these other ghastly numbers with Roethlisberger absent.
• The Steelers average time of possession was just 2:28 per drive — 28th in the NFL.
• Their drive scoring percentage was 28.6% — 30th in the NFL.
• They ran just 5.2 plays per possession — 31st in the NFL.
• Their total number of plays (956) was also 31st in the NFL.
Roethlisberger can’t help but improve those results.
However, one stat that also jumps out is that the Steelers offense got in its own way by turning the ball over on 15.7% of its possessions. That was sixth from the bottom throughout the league. With Roethlisberger at QB in 2018, they were only one slot better at 14.3% as Roethlisberger led the NFL with 16 interceptions.
So that has to improve from Roethlisberger on his own end.
As he has to prove that his arm is sound.
As he has to knock off the rust quickly enough so that the Steelers don’t dig themselves a massive hole as they have each of the past two seasons.
They started 0-3 last year and 1-2-1 in 2018, missing the playoffs both times.
Remember, the Steelers lost eight games last year. Roethlisberger started two of them.
Of the other six games, you could easily argue that at least five would’ve been winnable with an average daily performance from Roethlisberger. Maybe the Baltimore Ravens win one (or both) of those games anyway if standings and circumstances were different.
As good as the Steelers defense can be again, a complete replication of what we saw in 2019 may be too much of an ask. Especially in the turnover department.
Perhaps Keith Butler’s crew can’t drag the Steelers to victory eight times as it did last year. Let’s say it’s only six. They don’t get as many bounces. They endure a few more key injuries than they did in 2019.
Meanwhile, we’ll argue a leap in quarterback production from what we saw a season ago to an average campaign from Roethlisberger leads to an additional four or five wins that we outlined above.
Now you’re looking at a 10- or 11-win team. Which is exactly where I’ve predicted the Steelers will land the entire offseason.
Roethlisberger can’t make everybody better. He can’t keep the defense great. And he needs to be better than the quarterbacking we saw from him the previous 18 games before his injury.
But he should be at least good enough to get the Steelers to roughly 10 wins and back to the playoffs. Maybe even a victory in a postseason game.
Beyond that, it’ll take much more than Roethlisberger’s presence influencing this team to see that much improvement.
It’s not just Roethlisberger separating the Steelers from the likes of the Ravens and Kansas City Chiefs.
It’s more than that. But at least Roethlisberger can bring them closer to the conversation.