PITTSBURGH — The Steelers offense started their Week 8 game against the Miami Dolphins in a bigger rut than, well it wasn’t quite as big as the rut that swallowed a PAT bus downtown on Monday morning, but the image was certainly evocative.
In his first game back at Heinz Field since leaving in ambulance to be treated for a concussion on Oct. 5, Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph looked totally out of sorts in a first half that saw the winless, hapless and widely thought to be tanking Dolphins sprint out to a two-touchdown lead.
But the Steelers dug their way out of that hole thanks to a stout defense and the running game behind an inspired performance from James Conner to claim a 27-14 victory over the Dolphins.
Former Dolphins safety Minkah Fitzpatrick provided two interceptions as the Steelers defense forced four turnovers and caused Miami to turn the ball over on downs two more times.
Fitzpatrick’s first interception came just before the half and a horrifically blown coverage allowed Rudolph to find Diontae Johnson for a 45-yard catch-and-run score, with James Washington providing a pair of score-sealing blocks along the way.
At halftime, the Pittsburgh public works crews finally freed that bus from the sinkhole, and coincidentally, the Steelers surged. In the second half, Fitzpatrick intercepted his former teammates Ryan Fitzpatrick for the second time at the Steelers’ 3-yard line.
Rudolph then directed a 12-play, 97-yard scoring drive that was capped by a 26-yard touchdown pass to a leaping JuJu Smith-Schuster in the corner of the end zone. Rudolph finished 20 of 36 for 251 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Conner and the defense took over from there. Conner added on another touchdown on a 9-yard draw in the fourth quarter. He closed his day was 23 carries for 145 yards, one shy of his career high.
The Steelers kept taking the ball away, too. Mike Hilton forced a fumble as Miami was entering field goal range and Steven Nelson fell on it. Later, T.J. Watt did it all himself with a strip sack of Fitzpatrick and fumble recovery.
The Steelers improved to 3-4 on the season and will stay at home to face Indianapolis next Sunday.
NFL Insider John Clayton: Steelers Out of Running for J.J. Watt
One of the league’s most prominent insiders believes the Steelers are out of the running for free agent defensive end J.J. Watt.
Joining The PM Team on 93.7 The Fan on Wednesday, NFL insider John Clayton said Watt will not be joining his brothers T.J. and Derek in Pittsburgh.
Clayton sees the Tennessee Titans, Green Bay Packers and Buffalo Bills as the favorites to land Watt’s services.
For a potential dark horse, Clayton says the Las Vegas Raiders as an outside-the-box candidate to sign the veteran pass rusher.
.@JohnClaytonNFL says JJ Watt won't be coming to Pittsburgh. Tennessee, Green Bay, and Buffalo are the 3 teams. Raiders as a dark horse.— Andrew Fillipponi (@ThePoniExpress) February 24, 2021
Watt leaves Houston as one of the greatest players in franchise history. He was selected to five Pro Bowls, named First-Team All-Pro on five occasions and earned three NFL Defensive Player of the Year awards.
A future Hall of Famer, Watt is the Texans’ all-time leader in sacks (101), tackles-for-loss (172) and forced fumbles (25).
Watt recorded 52 total tackles, 14 tackles-for-loss, five sacks, two forced fumbles and returned an interception for a touchdown in 2020.
Steelers WR JuJu Smith-Schuster Says He Wants to Retire in Pittsburgh
Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster reiterated that he wants to finish his career in Pittsburgh, even though that possibility seems remote.
Smith-Schuster, speaking with TMZ Sports in Los Angeles on Wednesday, that he’s not looking for a reason to return to the West Coast, and wants to remain with the Steelers.
“At the end of the day, I want to have my legacy in Pittsburgh and retire there,” he said. “I don’t want to leave. … I’m Pittsburgh for life.”
Smith-Schuster also said that he still feels that Ben Roethlisberger has enough in the tank to the take the team to a championship and that he feels he has a good relationship with the Steelers’ quarterback.
Roethlisberger’s situation remains up in the air as he and the team attempt to come to terms on a re-negotiated or extended contract to ameliorate some of his $41 million cap hit for the 2021 season.
Roethlisberger said he would like Smith-Schuster to return, but the 24-year-old free agent will likely be able to command a salary in the $15 million per year range, which seems to be out of the price range of the Steelers, who remain well over the salary cap with three weeks to go before the start of the new league year.
How Can Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger Reduce His Salary Cap Hit?
It seems that both Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers would like to have Roethlisberger return to be the team’s quarterback for the 2021 season, after public statements from Roethlisberger’s agent Ryan Tollner and Steelers president Art Rooney II in the last 24 hours.
But both Tollner and Rooney emphasized the need for a parties to come to an agreement regarding Roethlisberger’s contract for the 2021 season.
The star quarterback is set to count for $41 million against the 2021 salary cap, a figure that the Steelers have said must be reduced in order for Roethlisberger to return. Roethlisberger has said that his salary for 2021 is not an issue to him.
But there are several different ways Roethlisberger’s 2021 salary can be reduced, and the remaining negotiations between the team and Roethlisberger’s representation will be based around that structure.
There are three basic ways that the team can reduce Roethlisberger’s salary cap for 2021: a traditional extension, an extension with voidable years and Roethlisberger taking a pay cut.
Here’s what Roethlisberger’s contact looks like right now:
In a traditional extension, Roethlisberger would convert most of his $19 million roster bonus and salary scheduled for 2021 into a signing bonus, with the impact divided over the number of years of the contract. These negotiations would also include future salary figures for Roethlisberger if he were to play in the 2022 season or beyond.
Without knowing how those negotiations would go, it’s hard to project what such a contract would look like in the future, but we can know what it would do to the 2021 salary cap:
The sides could also agree on a voidable extension that would add years to Roethlisberger’s contract in order to spread out the salary cap hit of the new singing bonus, but with both sides agreeing that he would not play beyond the 2021 season under the terms of that contract. The same amount of money could be turned into singing bonus, but it could be spread over more seasons without the team needing to worry about Roethlisberger attempting to stay and play well into his 40s.
Such an extension would look something like this on paper for the 2021 season:
But after the contract gets voided in 2022, the result would be something like this:
The final method would simply be negotiating a reduced contract for Roethlisberger in 2021. This is the only way for the team to get Roethlisberger’s cap hit for 2021 below about $27 million, and depending on how much he is willing to give up, could get as low as $23,325,000 in this example:
The earlier options would make Roethlisberger whole in 2021, with his entire due salary of $19 million get paid out this year and the cap impacts of that payment being spread out over several seasons.
This final option helps the team the most in 2021, but also involves Roethlisberger forgoing some of his negotiated salary, something the other options do not. It’s not clear if Roethlisberger of his representation will be willing to do that.