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GORMAN: Pittsburgh Steelers can't bank on Ben Roethlisberger's return guaranteeing success

KEVIN GORMAN
(Greensburg) Tribune-Review (TNS)
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger looks on from the bench during the second half of an NFL football game against the Baltimore Ravens, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2019, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Gail Burton)
  • Ben Roethlisberger missed most of the Pittsburgh Steelers' season in 2019.
  • Roethlisberger had season-ending surgery on his right elbow.
  • Roethlisberger has vowed to return to the Steelers for the 2020 season.

If this season taught the Pittsburgh Steelers anything, it should be that nothing is guaranteed.

Not a winning record.

Not the playoffs.

Not even strong quarterback play, which was the one thing the Steelers could count on for the previous 15 seasons.

The Steelers learned how hard it is to win without Ben Roethlisberger. And their two-year, $68 million extension with $37.5 million in guarantees backfired when he underwent season-ending surgery on his right elbow.

Not that the Steelers had a choice. This season showed how important a quarterback is to winning in the NFL, how valuable Roethlisberger is to the Steelers and how necessary it is to fortify the position for their future.

But the Steelers got a glimpse of life without Big Ben, and it showed their Super Bowl window is closing quickly.

1. Backing up Ben: The Steelers were slow to accept Roethlisberger wasn’t coming to their rescue, and they are still hopeful he can return to form next year. But he’ll be 38 and recovering from surgery on his throwing arm.

Can the Steelers win with Big Ben at less than 100%?

“Definitely,” Steelers cornerback Joe Haden said. “If we would’ve had him here this season, it would’ve been a different season. When he gets back, I think it’s going to be a little different story.”

Even so, the Steelers need to protect themselves from a sequel to the quarterback storyline this season.

Mason Rudolph and Devlin “Duck” Hodges didn’t get the job done, as Rudolph threw four interceptions in a loss at the Cleveland Browns and Hodges struggled against the New York Jets. To emphasize how costly the quarterback play was, consider they were the only two teams the NFL-worst Cincinnati Bengals beat this season.

The Steelers have no choice but to bring in a veteran quarterback, just in case Roethlisberger isn’t ready.

2. Tag Bud: The fallout from Le’Veon Bell’s refusal to sign the franchise tag and instead sit out the 2018 season to become a free agent shouldn’t stop the Steelers from placing the franchise tag on outside linebacker Bud Dupree.

The fifth-year veteran finally lived up to his first-round promise, recording 11½ sacks with 17 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. He formed a formidable pass-rush duo with T.J. Watt, and the Steelers shouldn’t let Dupree walk even if it costs $16.266 million in 2020.

“It’s way above my pay grade,” Watt said, “but if anyone asks me that, I’ll 100% advocate for Bud Dupree.”

Here’s the problem: The Steelers must exercise the fifth-year option on Watt by this May and should be seeking to sign him to a long-term deal in 2021. It might not come down to whether the Steelers can afford to pay top dollar to their outside linebackers but rather whether they can afford not to invest in them.

3. Do it for Tuitt: As much as Roethlisberger’s absence affected the offense, the Steelers couldn’t help but wonder how much more dominant their defense would have been if Stephon Tuitt hadn’t been lost to a torn pectoral.

That includes Dupree. He benefited from playing opposite Watt but could have been even better behind Tuitt.

“Oh yeah, it could have been,” Dupree said. “Tuitt could have got some attention on the inside. It could have been big with Tuitt. We could have made the playoffs.”

Whether that factors into Dupree’s decision is another story.

4. Four and out: Steelers fans will shed no tears, but there’s a good chance the 2016 draft class could be gone.

The draft class showed promise when first-rounder Artie Burns, second-rounder Sean Davis and third-rounder Javon Hargrave earned starting jobs as rookies, and seventh-rounder Tyler Matakevich became a valuable backup inside linebacker and special teams star.

Burns, who lost his starting cornerback job last season and was replaced by free agent Steve Nelson, said he plans to leave in free agency. Davis suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, and the Steelers traded for Minkah Fitzpatrick to replace him at free safety. The Steelers didn’t extend Hargrave and will likely have to find a new nose tackle. They traded offensive tackle Jerald Hawkins, their fourth-rounder, to Tampa Bay. Sixth-rounder Travis Feeney and seventh-rounder Demarcus Ayers have long been gone. Matakevich can test free agency.

Four years later, the Steelers might have nothing to show for the draft class.

5. Eight isn’t enough: When the Steelers clinched the 13th consecutive nonlosing season under Mike Tomlin, he was being touted as a candidate for coach of the year.

That was before the Steelers lost at the New York Jets and Baltimore Ravens and failed to qualify for the postseason for the second consecutive year. Now, Steelers fans are back to wanting him fired.

The Steelers sounded optimistic when talking about how close they kept early games against the Ravens, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks. And Tomlin got the most out of this team by winning seven games after a 1-4 start before losing their last three to finish 8-8.

But the reality is the Steelers didn’t beat a playoff team this season, and there’s no guarantee they are going to be better next year, even with Big Ben back.