STARKEY: If you're not worried about Ben Roethlisberger now, you're not watching

JOE STARKEY
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Ben Roethlisberger

The Pittsburgh Steelers have plenty of problems. Maybe more than any 11-3 team in NFL history.

One of them matters by far the most: Ben Roethlisberger, who is scheduled for a $41.25 million cap hit next season, is playing so poorly that one cannot help but wonder if there will be a next season. Or if there should be.

ESPN's Adam Schefter, citing league sources, wrote Monday morning that Roethlisberger "wants to continue playing next season and, barring a change of heart, intends to fulfill the terms of a contract that has one season remaining on it after this one."

Roethlisberger has millions of reasons to want to play in 2021, but he is also on the record from last week, after his poor performance in Buffalo, as saying, "If I don't play good enough football, then I need to hang it up."

Ugly performance on Monday: I'm still not ready to go there, but, man, to say his performance Monday night was not good enough would be putting it kindly. If you're not alarmed by Roethlisberger's play of late, I don't know what you're watching.

His very first pass in this hideous, 27-17 loss to the 2-10-1 Cincinnati Bengals was a repeat of his last pass in the loss in Buffalo — a woefully underthrown bomb to James Washington. The one against Buffalo was intercepted. The one in Cincinnati easily could have been.

Ben Roethlisberger

Roethlisberger could have been picked off at least four times instead of just once. He also fumbled twice (losing one) and had his worst downfield passing game in 15 years, by one measurement.

According to ESPN, Roethlisberger was 1 for 12 on passes 10 or more yards down the field — his worst percentage (8.3) on such passes since 2005.

At one point, he was 5 for 13 for minus-2 yards — including 0 for 7 on passes at least 10 yards. He was choosing covered receivers instead of open ones. His longest completion of the first half was a nothing toss to Jaylen Samuels for 12 yards just before a punt.

Is his arm wearing out? Roethlisberger has eight touchdown passes and six interceptions in his past six games. Some of the analytics people predicted this kind of demise even when he was establishing himself as an MVP candidate earlier this season. I didn't see it then. I still wonder if his arm is wearing out or if he's injured.

Asked if he believes Roethlisberger's arm is fatiguing over the second half of the season, Mike Tomlin said, "Not from my perspective, no."

Roethlisberger said only this: "I would say that I don't feel 100 percent, but nobody feels 100 percent right now."

Line woes: It's only fair to mention that his offensive line didn't do a great job protecting him Monday, either, which makes it hard to let deeper patterns develop. Maybe a lack of confidence in the line is what led to the plan for a short, quick passing game this season.

Also, Roethlisberger was better in the second half, including a beautiful 23-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson (who didn't drop it). But that's the thing these days: Roethlisberger's moments of brilliance are few and far between.

No comeback this time: Used to be when Ben got the ball back late, needing a touchdown, you felt pretty good about it.

That wasn't the case last night, at least not from this seat. The Steelers started at their 24 with 2:17 left, needing a touchdown to tie. After two incompletions, Roethlisberger tried for a big play down the sidelines to Chase Claypool, and it should have drawn a flag for interference.

On 4th-and-10, for reasons unknown, Claypool was not on the field. Roethlisberger's pass for Washington sailed high.

Something's broken — and I'm not sure if it can be fixed.