Stop me when this sounds familiar: Ben Roethlisberger is injured.
As a Steelers fan, you simply accept the fact that every so often, Ben will take a viscous hit that knocks him out of a few games. Likewise, as a Steelers fan, you have grown accustomed to the play of the back-up quarterback paling in comparison. What makes matters worse is that while Roethlisberger is mending, not only does the team generally lose games, Roethlisberger feels compelled to return (sooner than he should), which in turn aggravates his injury and/or prolongs his recovery.
So, after the Rams knocked Ben’s knee sideways, we have once again arrived at the age-old debate for Steelers fans: start the back-up at one hundred percent, or, go with Big Ben at sixty percent?
No game was more indicative of this dilemma than the regular season game against the Niners in 2011. The Steelers were contending for the top seed in the AFC playoffs; hence, the pressure was on them to win… at all costs. But Ben Roethlisberger had a bum ankle. Injury be damned, Ben played in that game… but alas, he was simply not himself. The Steelers lost the game anyway and like salt in a wound, Ben aggravated his ankle… an injury which hampered him all the way into the playoffs.
I truly believe that if the Steelers had rested Ben for that Niners game, Ben would have been all healed up by the playoffs. A healthy Ben annihilates the Tebow-led Broncos. As it was, Ben was gimpy, and thus, his play suffered, as evidenced by Pittsburgh’s final possession in regulation. The Steelers had first-and-ten in field goal range. All they have to do is get one more first down, in order to run out the clock, and then kick the game-winning field goal. Instead, the Broncos bring the house on three straight plays, and because he was injured, Roethlisberger took two sacks… knocking the Steelers out of field goal range. A healthy Big Ben eludes the rush, gets that first down, and wins the game.
If you fast-forward through the following seasons, you will see more of the same: Ben gets hurt, and yet plays hurt, because the back-up will assuredly lose.
Tiring of having the season hinge on Roethlisberger’s health, the Steelers sought out a backup quarterback, who could start two or three games, in the event of a Roethlisberger injury. They did not need this backup to be the heir apparent, but instead, they needed a stop-gap: someone who could win a game or two, allowing Ben to rest and recover. Thus, the Steelers drafted Landry Jones in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.
Jones may not have been the correct quarterback to take, but something had to be done. As far as which quarterback to draft, 2013 might not have been the best year to draft a backup: Brad Sorenson, Zac Dysert, B.J. Daniels, Sean Renfree… you get the idea. In the 2014 draft, the Steelers could have used their first round pick on Teddy Bridgewater or Derek Carr; that said, with so many positions to fill every season, and Roethlisberger entrenched as the starter for the next five seasons, neither of those guys would have made sense. Again, the Steelers were looking for a stop-gap, not an heir apparent.
Of course, someone will bring up the genius of Bill Belichick, saying that Mike Tomlin could have drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round… but again, the Steelers had more pressing needs, such as Stephon Tuitt. Would any of us realistically trade Garoppolo for Tuitt? I did not think so. Anyway, after Garoppolo, it was more of the “fourth round and later” types of training camp fodder: Logan Thomas, Tom Savage, and A.J. McCarron.
Now, not to toot my own horn, but a quarterback whom I wanted the Steelers to draft was available in the fifth round: Aaron Murray. Likewise, another guy who has shown a little something is Zach Mettenberger. Murray looked very good in this past preseason, and Mettenberger has played decently in a handful of actual games. But regardless of how well those two have fared, with Jones already on the roster, drafting yet another backup quarterback made little sense. Plus, the fifth round is Pittsburgh’s designated round to draft a cornerback who will be cut by the end of training camp.
Back to 2015. There may just be a silver lining in all of this. The Steelers not having Big Ben as their quarterback forces Todd Haley to make play calls that utilizes the skill sets of his other players: Le’Veon Bell is great at catching passes out of the backfield; Martavis Bryant is great at catching the deep pass; and, Antonio Brown is simply just great. Ergo, Haley should design a play sheet that highlights the assets of those players. In other words, instead of focusing the game plan around the quarterback, the game plans for the next six games should be focused on the assets of these skill players. As they go, so will the offense; as the offense thrives, so will the team.
In summation, I need for Todd Haley to focus his game plans on the assets of his skill players. I need the defense to gel together and develop a bunker mentality, because even though they are young, they absolutely have to to take up the slack left by the departure of Big Ben; not only do they need to slow down the opposition, they have to give the offense short fields (i.e. create turnovers). Last but not least, I need for Michael Vick to simply not lose the game: do not be the hero, make safe, smart throws, and lean heavily on the skill players around him.