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Saunders: QB Controversy Just Means Steelers Still Looking for Roethlisberger’s Successor

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CINCINNATI — Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 37 years old. By the time he takes another snap under center, he’ll have turned 38.

That’s not exactly a spring chicken. Roethlisberger’s start of the 2019 of the season tied him with legendary center Mike Webster for the longest career, season-wise, in team history.

With good reason, the Steelers’ plan for the AfterBen, has been widely speculated, but never firmly laid out.

At one point, it looked like Josh Dobbs had a chance to earn status as Roethlisberger’s successor. He was traded to the Jacksonville Jaguars in September.

The Steelers used a third-round pick on Mason Rudolph in the 2018 NFL Draft, assuring him at least a good opportunity at being the next Steelers starting quarterback, simply as a result of the draft capital expended to acquire him.

When Roethlisberger was lost to the season with an elbow injury, Rudolph got that chance. On Sunday, he was benched in favor of undrafted rookie Devlin Hodges, who led the Steelers from behind and over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Mike Tomlin has not revealed his plans for who will start next Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, and for the moment, it seems that the Steelers have a bona fide quarterback controversy.

While he’s not tipping his hand, Tomlin’s decision to bench Rudolph already tells a good part of the story.

When doctors opened up Roethlisberger’s elbow in early September, the Steelers’ realistic chances of winning a Super Bowl were dashed.

The opportunity that lay in front of the Steelers for the remainder of 2019 was not stock the Rooney Family trophy case with Lombardi No. 7, but to identity if the Steelers have quarterback that will let them do that or not.

When Hodges grabbed his helmet on Sunday, it was a sure sign that the team no longer believes he can be that player.

Yes, the Steelers needed the win over the Bengals to preserve their No. 6 position in the AFC Wild Card battle, but realistically, even if the Steelers could pull of a Wild Card-round upset, would even the largest zealots in Steelers Nation like their odds of a late-December win in Foxborough?

Rudolph has struggled, clearly. If the Steelers think he can be their quarterback of the future, job one for the rest of the year would be letting him work through those struggles, find his form and potentially challenge Roethlisberger for a starting job in 2020.

He wants and probably needs, for his development, to be given that chance.

But if the Steelers’ braintrust has already decided that Rudolph is not the answer, then the right play is to start whichever quarterback Tomlin and Randy Fichtner think gives them the best shot of earning that postseason bid, giving the rest of the team valuable playoff experience, even if it ends in a loss.

That’s how Duck Hodges ends up in the game. Hodges, while effective in leading the Steelers to a victory, has hardly been a dynamo in his three games. There’s good reason Tomlin waited through five Rudolph interceptions over five quarters and continued giving him chances before pulling the plug.

Just based on his status as an undrafted rookie, there’s a strong probability that Duck isn’t the answer, either. There have been a few — Kurt Warner being the last — undrafted quarterbacks to lead their team to a Super Bowl. But it’s clearly the exception and not the rule.

So whichever player start on Sunday against the Browns, the big takeaway from the Steelers quarterback controversy that once again, they’re still looking for their starter in the AfterBen.

Steelers

Highlights from Steelers Practice 9/25/20

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It was all about wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’s return and the Watt brothers at the final practice before the Steelers week 3 game against Houston.

Footage courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers

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Steelers

Highlights from Steelers Practice 9/24/20

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While it’s odd to see referees standing out in a clip of highlights, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s plan to incorporate actual refs into practice this week happened on Thursday.

Tomlin explained he is adding refs to practice to ensure his team is more disciplined, which hopefully leads to less penalties in their game this week compared to last week.

Wide receivers James Washington, Diontae Johnson and tight end Eric Ebron run routes and catch passes in this clip.

Footage courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers

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Steelers

Ben Roethlisberger Says Form, Mechanics Can Be Better Despite Hot Start

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To hear Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tell it, he can better than what he’s shown on the field in his first two weeks since returning from elbow surgery.

He’s not happy with his footwork, he thinks he’s dropping his arm a bit and needs a more consistent release point.

The statistics, however tell another story. They say Roethlisberger has been operating at a higher level of precision than ever before. So which is it? Maybe both.

“I do feel I got a little lazy with my feet, which then, in turn, translated to a lazy arm,” Roethlisberger said. “There were some throws that I kind of dropped my elbow, if you will. I don’t want to get too technical, but it became more of a three-quarter release instead of an over the top when I didn’t need to. There are obviously times you have to change your release point. There were too many throws, I felt looking back, that I just have to get my feet working better, and that will then translate, hopefully, to the rest of the body. Then, I won’t be guiding some of the throws.”

Here’s an example from the game Roethlisberger’s form getting a little sloppy. He throws this ball flat-footed and almost all with his right side, getting less power behind it than usual and resulting in a pass that ends up behind JuJu Smith-Shuster instead of allowing him to build a head of steam toward the defenders at the line of scrimmage.

Is this a big deal here? Not really. Smith-Schuster probably couldn’t have done much better than he did at bulling over the defender, anyway. But this is also a route into the flat on the near side of the field. Over longer distances, that can make a big difference.

“I’ve gotten away with it in the past being able to not necessarily be perfect from the ground up and just letting my arm kind of make up for a lot of things, a lot of imperfections if you talk to quarterback people,” Roethlisberger said. “I feel great. I just need to get it in my mind that I can still make the throws when I’m not in the perfect position to make them.”

All of that can be true, and yet, it’s hard to argue with the results. Through two games, Roethlisberger has a 68.5 completion percentage. His career season high was 68% in 2015. In a game and a half last year, it was 56.5%.

His passer rating, even with an interception against the Broncos, is 107.1. His career season-long high came in 2o07, when he finished with a 104.1 mark. Last season before his injury, it was 66.

Some of that can be explained by a passing scheme that has take fewer deep shots down the field than it has in years past. His yards per pass attempt sits at 7.4, lower than all but four of his other 16 seasons.

Mechanical inconsistency can certainly have a greater impact on longer throws, so the Steelers’ somewhat more methodical offensive approach could be helping Roethlisberger get into the swing of things.

“Maybe some of that just comes from not playing a lot of football,” he posited. “I played two games this year. I played a game and a half last year, so really, it’s about three and a half games in two years if you think about it. It’ll come. Like I said, if I’m having these issues and we are still winning football games, that’s a plus.”

If a 2-0 record with career highs in passer rating and completion percentage is what he looks like with mechanical issues, the NFL should be very worried about what might happen if he gets into a groove.

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