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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

Ryan Shazier Starts Foundation for Spinal Cord Injuries

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Former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier has started a foundation to help individuals with spinal cord injuries.

The Ryan Shazier Fund for Spinal Rehabilitation will “provide support, resources and funding to those with spinal cord injuries and their caregivers.”

“My team and I have been working behind the scenes to find ways to continue to push forward progress for the spinal cord community,” Shazier said on Twitter Tuesday. “One step at a time we will change how people view spinal injuries.”

Shazier’s promising NFL career ended prematurely three years ago when he suffered his own spinal injury against the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017. He officially announced his retirement from football earlier this year, but has made tremendous strides in his recovery.

Selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft out of Ohio State, Shazier finished his career with 299 total tackles, 24 tackles-for-loss, seven sacks, seven forced fumbles and seven interceptions. He was twice selected to the Pro Bowl.

Former Steelers coaches and teammates shared their congratulations to Shazier on the start of his non-profit Tuesday, including head coach Mike Tomlin and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

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Steelers Can Become First to Clinch a Playoff Berth This Week

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The Steelers can become the first NFL team to clinch a playoff berth for the 2020 season on Thursday, if they’re able to beat the Baltimore Ravens and get a little bit of help.

If the Steelers beat Baltimore at Heinz Field on Thursday night to improve to 11-0 on the season, and both the Las Vegas Raiders and Miami Dolphins lose, or one loses and one ties, the Steelers will have wrapped up a 2020 NFL postseason berth.


Though the Steelers are playing on Thanksgiving night, they will have to wait until the weekend to find out if they’ve earned their playoff berth. The Raiders will visit the Atlanta Falcons this week and the Dolphins will play at the New York Jets. Both of those games are scheduled for 1 p.m. kickoffs on Sunday.

The 10-0 Steelers are in first place in the AFC North, three games ahead of the 7-3 Cleveland Browns, so they can’t yet clinch a division title at this point, just a Wild Card berth.

The earliest the Steelers could clinch a divisional title will come in Week 14.

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Chase Claypool’s Physical Dominance Going Beyond Catches, Yards and Scores

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Steelers wide receiver Chase Claypool is big, that much is easy enough to tell by looking at him.

At 6-foot-4 and 238 pounds, he’s one of the physically largest receivers in the NFL, even as a rookie. He’s also fast, as he proved at the NFL and has proven over and over again throughout his rookie season, as he’s raced out to 35 catches for 500 yards and eight touchdowns over his first 10 games.

Big and fast is a pretty good combination for a wide receiver and it’s made Claypool quite a handful for opposing cornerbacks, despite his lack of experience in the league.

When corners are given a tasks that might be a bit more than they’re capable of handling physically, their first instinct might be to grab a handful of jersey.

Against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Claypool was twice a victim of defensive pass interference penalties, once for 29 yards and another for 21 that can essentially be added  to the 51 in receiving that he brought in.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said after the game that he’ll take those penalty flags and the automatic first downs that come with them, but he also wants the physically dominant Claypool to run through those fouls and find some touchdowns.

“He says that after every PI,” Claypool said on Monday. “It definitely makes sense and definitely, it’s something that I’m trying to work on, just getting through some some of those PI calls, but some of them, as you could see from yesterday’s game, you just can’t fight through and tackle sometimes. I’m happy to know that he can throw it up and it’s either a catch or a PI.”

While Claypool’s adjustment to the NFL has seemingly been an easy one, there’s a fine line to walk for a rookie when it comes to earning those calls. If Claypool doesn’t sell it at all in all-out attempt to catch the ball, he might not get either the pass or the flag. But he’s not at a point in his career where he can demand a call be made, either.

“I definitely watch some of these games and you know, I see these guys get like PI’d and if the flag, doesn’t come out … no specific receiver, but like a Pro Bowl receiver and they just like throw their hands up, they can get a call right there,” Claypool explained. “So I’m gonna try that. Probably not this year but maybe down the road there a little bit.”

That day might come sooner than he thinks if he continues the torrid pace he’s set so far. Claypool is the first rookie wide receiver since the NFL-AFL merger to score 10 touchdowns in his first 10 games, a level of success that has surprised even him.

“This much, for sure,” Claypool said. “You never really are able to picture something like this. But I expected to have success in my career just based off like training and kind of how I felt about myself and my preparation. But definitely thought the transition would have been a little bit longer.”

In that aspect, the one thing that maybe has been less surprising has been his ability to draw penalties. After all, that’s mostly about size and speed, and it was clear even before he entered the league that he had a rare combination in those areas.

“Just watching game film and, and looking at corners in the league and their measurables, I knew I was gonna measure up physically,” he said. “If there’s a corner bigger than me, then damn.”

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