In Kansas City on the day after Christmas, the Pittsburgh Steelers punctured any remaining illusion of being a playoff-worthy team. Not only were the Black-and-Gold exposed as generally not ready for prime-time competition, but Ben Roethlisberger did nothing to silence critics' claims that his NFL career has exceeded its expiration date.
From the opening kickoff at Arrowhead, Pittsburgh never challenged the Chiefs and was incapable of mustering even the beginning of a last-ditch comeback they had managed in previous games. During the course of the Black-and-Gold being kicked to the curb, Steelers Nation got a preview of what surely would be the Steelers' fate if somehow they happened to secure a Wild Card berth.
With two divisional games remaining and facing opponents saddled with equally slim possibilities of playoff berths, the Steelers must confront the difficult truth that their years as perennial contenders have now passed them by. Nary a trace remains today of the winning attitude that formerly made Pittsburgh one of the toughest matchups on an opponent's schedule.
Today's soft, poorly coordinated and undisciplined Steelers have come to be viewed as NFL pushovers. That's certainly the way they were treated this season by the Bengals, Chiefs and various other teams.
At this point, it's difficult to tell whether any members of the Steelers' current offensive line should keep their starting jobs beyond this season. And there's scant evidence the OL play has improved significantly after 15 games. Since the Opening Day kickoff, Najee Harris has been running into brick walls while Roethlisberger has been forced to entirely shift his already limited repertoire in the passing game due to equally poor pass protection.
This situation is especially troubling because the Steelers focused specifically on the OL in the 2021 NFL Draft. Mike Tomlin even expressed confidence during the preseason that Pittsburgh's rookie draft picks would mold themselves into a competent unit during the regular season. But that development never materialized and the Steelers OL doesn't look a bit more promising today than it did back in early September.
Given Roethlisberger's impending departure and the Steelers' middling position in the 2022 NFL Draft, the team probably needs to make a basic strategic choice between prioritizing the OL and finding their next franchise quarterback. The 2022 season already looks like a particularly rough ride because the Steelers are facing a major rebuild. It's doubtful they could address both the QB vacancy and their OL issues within a single season unless either Mason Rudolph or Dwayne Haskins turns out to be a diamond in the rough.
Overall, it's obvious the many preseason skeptics were accurate in predicting this Steelers team wasn't going anywhere because of too many bricks missing from their team structure. As mediocre as it might look, the Steelers' current .500 record probably is much better than would be expected of a team so obviously lacking in talent at key positions.
The Steelers' Monday night matchup with the Cleveland Browns at Heinz Field will also be the occasion of Big Ben's farewell appearance in Pittsburgh as a player. That's why it's unlikely we'll be seeing much more of Mason Rudolph until the Steelers play what looks like a meaningless finale against the Ravens in Baltimore.
Despite the possibly premature judgments of his critics, Rudolph has paid his dues and deserves his long-awaited opportunity to win or lose the starting QB job during the course of next season. Conversely, signing an accomplished, veteran QB during the offseason would be a strong signal that the Steelers have no real faith in Rudolph's potential.
Beyond the uncertainty at QB, the Steelers also must part ways with various players who haven't shown they can help the team moving forward. Even more importantly, Pittsburgh must do a far better job of drafting players in rounds 3-7.
One of the most glaring issues exposed this season has been a lack of quality depth at crucial positions. While the Steelers have succeeded in drafting high-round, nucleus players such as T.J. Watt, Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster, their record of choosing players in the mid-to-lower rounds during the past decade leaves much to be desired.
As much talent as the Steelers currently have at running back and wide receiver, it's not going to help very much without a solid OL and a quarterback who consistently can make the tough throws that were Roethlisberger's hallmark during his prime years.
The bottom line for 2021 is that Pittsburgh clearly didn't start this season with the overall talent necessary to be a playoff contender. Their OL couldn't run-block or protect an aging, nearly immobile quarterback. Their defense rarely could hold on critical third downs or stop opponents from scoring practically at will. It should be no surprise to anyone that the Steelers likely will miss the playoffs this season. The only surprise should be that a team with so many key deficiencies is going to finish with a season record somewhere in the neighborhood of .500 football.
Apparently, it's going to take some time before the Steelers start to look like serious contenders again. How much time this transition takes will depend mainly on the quality of decision-making by Mike Tomlin and the Steelers' front office.
For Coach Tomlin, the stakes in turning his team around couldn't be any higher. It's quite unlikely the Steelers ownership is prepared to endure another decade without fielding a Super Bowl contender. This probably means that Tomlin, despite his successful track record, isn't looking at a grace period any longer than a few years to turn this doormat into a contender. For his growing legion of critics, however, extending the Tomlin Era by even a few more years seems unwarranted.
It's unlikely the Steelers' 2022 season will accommodate the unrealistic expectations that fans typically project onto the annual NFL Draft and preseason. Next season already is shaping up far less as a significant rebound for Pittsburgh than as a time for patient evaluation of the offseason changes we know are coming. At minimum, the expectation should be that the arrow of Pittsburgh's overall performance begins to move upwards, however modestly.
As the debacle in Kansas City shows, the picture can't get much worse for the Steelers than what their fans have witnessed this year. The Steelers currently are a team with shortcomings so profound they've reached one of the lowest points in their modern history.
Because problems of this magnitude won't be solved quickly, next year likely will see the Steelers going back to the drawing board in many respects. For a team that appears to have lost its bearings, 2022 hopefully will present an opportunity for Pittsburgh to begin crafting a new identity that at least begins to resemble what we recognize as Steelers football.