Sometimes we all need a dose of reality, even when the truth can be tough to swallow. Ever the eternal optimist, I always strive to keep the faith and believe in the possibilities rather than the probabilities. I believe that the Steelers hierarchy were just like me and many others around Steelers Nation this past off season. Wanting to believe that Ben Roethlisberger had one more magical run left in him, similar to his boyhood idol John Elway.
That if the Steelers could somehow provide Ben with a powerful running game and a dominant defense, like Elway's final two Denver Broncos squads, Ben could be a game manager and work his late game magic enough to get the Steelers back to the mountain top. That Roethlisberger could ride off into the sunset a champion like Jerome Bettis and Elway before him. There was only one problem with their plan. The Steelers were no where near talented to pull it off.
John Elway was great enough to carry multiple teams all the way to the Super Bowl, only to go home in defeat. It was common knowledge that the missing piece for those Elway squads was a dominating rushing attack, which they finally achieved by drafting HOF Terrell Davis. The main difference in those Broncos teams and the 2021 Steelers was the fact that the Broncos were really just one exceptional player away from being championship caliber. Davis was the missing piece in that equation. The Broncos already had an above average offensive line, skill position players, and defense. The Steelers only had the defense, and that fell apart before the season even started.
The Steelers decisions prior to the 2021 NFL season proved to be a case of hopeful perspective versus reality, with Roethlisberger's final season turning into something akin to a well deserved farewell tour, although the Steelers band of overachievers somehow managed to qualify for the playoffs, thanks again to some more Big Ben late game magic. However, the offense as a whole was a effort in frustration. The Steelers knew going into the season that Roethlisberger needed more help than ever before, help that a young and talent deficient offensive supporting cast couldn't provide. I readily admit I misjudged the Steelers talent level. That type of mistake can no longer happen in the mist of a rebuild.
There are still plenty of rose colored glasses out there amongst the fanbase. I was having a interesting conversation with a knowledgeable and loyal BTSC member in the discussion thread of one of my articles. We were comparing the available offensive talent of the surging Cincinnati Bengals and the rebuilding Pittsburgh Steelers. My fellow BTSC member acknowledged that the Bengals had a huge edge at QB with the talented Joe Burrow, but that the remaining positions were closer than many realized. They claimed the running back position was a wash, the Steelers had the edge at TE, the Bengals had a slight edge at WR, and the offensive lines were basically even; based on the fact the Bengals offensive line allowed Burrow to be sacked 9 times in their miraculous playoff victory over the Tennessee Titans.
The running back and tight end positions are close enough to not warrant discussion. Like they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. However, the offensive line disparity isn't really close, and there is a gigantic talent gap between the two wide receivers groups.
The Bengals have two young superstars at WR in Ja'Marr Chase and Tee Higgins, and they have talented possession receiver Tyler Boyd as their WR3. How good is Tyler Boyd, the former Pittsburgh Panther standout? He would instantly be the best receiver on the Steelers if somehow traded, in my opinion. I don't think that statement is even arguable. The future of JuJu Smith-Schuster in Pittsburgh is still uncertain, but I don't think his status effects that statement in the slightest.
The incredible 9 sacks surrendered by the Bengals offensive line highlighted a serious shortcoming for the unit that has been a season long issue. They have struggled at various points of the season in pass protection, but the two passing attacks couldn't have been more different. Roethlisberger stayed alive behind the worst offensive line of his career by relying on plenty of pre-snap reads and then getting the ball out in around two seconds, not because he wanted to, but because his health depended on it. He no longer possessed his legendary strength and escapability, and he knew his own limitations.
Joe Burrow and the Bengals passing attack is reminiscent of what the Steelers passing offense used to look like. Burrow isn't necessarily a fast or elusive runner, but he moves well enough, especially in the pocket. He drops back and proceeds to read his progressions, often holding the ball until the last split second before delivering an incredibly accurate pass. Sometimes his stubbornness to give up on a play results in a QB sack, but he has shown impressive courage and toughness standing in the pocket and taking the occasional beating. Especially coming off last year's season ending knee injury.
If Ben Roethlisberger would have tried to orchestrate that style of passing attack this year, there is no way he would have survived the season. Not just because he was immobile, but because his offensive line struggled mightily to protect him for those aforementioned two seconds. On top of all that, the Bengals offensive line was much better at run blocking as well. They allowed the Bengals offense to achieve the type of offensive balance that the Steelers were hoping for heading into the season.
It really doesn't matter if some members of Steelers Nation like myself readily admit to occasionally wearing rose colored glasses. It definitely matters if the Steelers decision makers do the same thing in the early stages of a rebuild. That being said, I trust the Steelers to make the right decisions moving forward. Last off season was anything but normal, and the Steelers tried to make the best of a bad situation. Considering the unforgettable memories and moments created for Big Ben and the fanbase, and the fact the Steelers actually made the playoffs, I would have to say that the season exceeded realistic expectations. Now complete honesty is required to rebuild the roster into a contender.