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Steelers need to put their horses before the cart

Without the supporting cast, quarterback talent can be wasted.

NFL: Baltimore Ravens at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

During the past five decades, the Pittsburgh Steelers have built a well-deserved reputation for team toughness and resilience—a trait which seems to have gone strangely missing in recent years. The organization whose former mantra stated "whatever it takes" has more recently scaled back expectations to the motto "whenever we feel like it." How else to explain the total, late-season meltdown of a team that began it's 2020 season by winning 11 straight games?

The toughness, physicality and sheer will that characterized the Steelers of yore was also a quality of the team's greatest quarterbacks. In the earlier days of his career, Terry Bradshaw was known not only for his rocket arm but also for running the ball, frequently through the lunging grasps of linebackers and safeties.

While he's never relished the running-back role nearly to the extent of Bradshaw, Ben Roethlisberger once distinguished himself as a tormenter of pass rushers, sometimes tossing them casually off of his back like the biggest kid in a sandlot pickup game.

The uncanny toughness of Terry and Ben perfectly aligns with the powerful, no-nonsense steel town in which they've played. But another benefit that might be overlooked is that the Steelers' two greatest quarterbacks were physically tough enough to survive the early-career abuse that each endured.

Looking around the rest of the NFL during the past 50 years, you'll find plenty of examples of highly-drafted, promising quarterbacks who essentially were thrown to the dogs by teams with sub-par offensive lines. Who knows how many NFL quarterbacks have seen once-promising careers go down the drain simply because of the weekly beatings they were taking when they should have been honing their leadership skills? It's a question that no one can answer definitively, but the Cincinnati Bengals might be the most sobering example of an organization that continues to draft talented, young quarterbacks while neglecting the horses necessary to get their cart moving. You can go all the way back to Kenny Anderson, through Boomer Esiason and to the more recent departure of Andy Dalton, but the pattern in the Queen City hasn't changed. Most recently, the Bengals came dangerously close to losing Joe Burrow, one of the best young QB prospects to come out of college in many years. Burrow was getting a tough dose of the now-traditional trial by fire for rookie QBs in Cincy before his season-ending injury. Dalton was probably just thankful to escape the abuse he had endured in recent years.

These days, NFL teams more often use quarterback speed and athleticism as a substitute for the brute strength once epitomized by Terry and Ben. Good luck trying to run down Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson, let alone tackle them, when they tuck the ball and scamper out of the pocket.

But assuming the Steelers don't find another Hall of Fame-level quarterback in a fullback's body, the best and most immediate course seems to be to bolster the offensive line and running back positions—at least until they're able to draft or acquire a top-shelf quarterback. As many have pointed out, though, Roethlisberger's salary plus the Steelers' middling draft position probably foreclose the possibility of getting another franchise QB until the 2022 NFL Draft at the earliest.

But during the interim period, making a firm commitment to establish the running game, both at the coaching level and in player acquisition, wouldn't be a bad place to start the process of bringing the Black & Gold back to the place its fans have come to expect. It's also a reasonable strategy for a transitional period during which the quarterback position likely will be in flux.