Pittsburgh Steelers

Pittsburgh Steelers

Can Great Defense Turn Ben Roethlisberger into 2015 Peyton Manning?

Image A

The Steelers aren't the type of franchise that likes to admit to being in a rebuilding phase. They are a proud bunch that wears the black and gold. Deservedly so—this is a team that hasn't had a losing season since 2003 and has had two in a row just once since the 1980s. That competitive arrogance is more often than not a good thing, and surely any team that started a season 11-0 and captured a tough division title, as the Steelers did in 2020, is usually confident that the next year will be, well, super.

It is in this context that Pittsburgh decided that despite an aging roster, a lack of depth and/or experience at key positions, and a quarterback who emitted alarming signs of decay at the end of last season, they could not allow a rebuilding, or even retrenching, process to take place. Instead, they are going back into battle with 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger and most of the same pieces they had in 2020, without much of a backup plan should Roethlisberger stumble even further into the ditch at the end of his otherwise Hall of Fame career.

Roethlisberger's return from the elbow injury that cost him virtually all of 2019 seemed a triumphant one as the team won its first 11 games. But it was among the more uneasy double-digit-unbeaten streaks in recent memory. Every win only seemed to bring more pessimism. Pittsburgh barely escaped Denver and backup quarterback Jeff Driskel in its home opener. Carson Wentz, the lowest-rated passer in the league, almost beat them with a furious late rally. Stephen Gostkowski missed a kick that would have sent the Titans game to overtime. Lamar Jackson threw an incomplete pass in the end zone that allowed a four-point escape, and the following week Pittsburgh required a fourth-quarter rally to best Dallas and third-stringer Garrett Gilbert.

Overall, the Steelers won seven of nine one-score games, recovered 14 of their 19 fumbles on offense, and got to match up with the tragicomic NFC East and punchless AFC South, making for what would be the league's...