Steelers have left themselves vulnerable at quarterback

Ben Roethlisberger’s injury sank the Steelers in 2019. Incredibly, the team’s front office did nothing to strengthen their quarterback options for 2020.

The Steelers front office does a terrific job of giving Mike Tomlin and his coaching staff enough talent to be legitimate Super Bowl contenders almost every season. That doesn’t mean GM Kevin Colbert and his team are above reproach. Their handling of the team’s quarterback room heading into the 2020 season deserves serious criticism.

Pittsburgh learned first-hand just how tough winning in the NFL can be when your starting quarterback goes down to injury last season. Ben Roethlisberger only managed to play two games before an injury to his throwing elbow caused him to land on Injured Reserve. To say that the Steelers offense missed Big Ben would be an understatement.

The combination of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges combined to start the team’s remaining 14 games at quarterback. Neither player proved to be remotely capable of leading the Steelers offense to anything resembling proficiency.

Rudolph somehow managed to post a respectable record of 5-3 in his eight games as a starter despite his poor play at the game’s most important position. He threw nine interceptions against just 13 touchdowns and only averaged 6.2 yards per passing attempt. The tape showed him to be a signal-caller that lacked any ability to push the ball downfield with any type of consistency. Opponents crowded the box against Rudolph and slowed the Steelers offense to a crawl.

Hodges was arguably worse in his six starts. He managed to win three of those games but was unable to win key games for Pittsburgh down the stretch when their postseason hopes were on life support. He threw eight picks against just five touchdowns and was even more conservative than Rudolph in terms of his downfield passing. His adjusted average of five yards per completion illustrates just how easy he was for opposing secondaries to defend.

The simple truth is that the Steelers defense had to play great football to keep this team afloat given just how bad the offense was without Roethlisberger. The team’s front office got a front-row seat to those painful offensive struggles in 2019. That’s why it’s so perplexing that Colbert and the front office did nothing to improve their chances of winning without Roethlisberger in 2020.

Yes, the odds do favor Roethlisberger staying healthy this season. His injury in 2019 could prove to be an outlier for his career. Risk mitigation is still an important task for every NFL front office. The Steelers have no hopes of winning games consistently if they’re forced to play either Rudolph or Hodges in important games this season.

What should the Steelers have done?

The easy answer is that Pittsburgh should have looked to add a quality backup quarterback in the draft. In fairness, the Steelers did not have a first round selection to work with after using it to acquire Minkah Fitzpatrick.

That would have prevented them from selecting one of the top four quarterbacks in the class. Jalen Hurts was a second round pick that would have slotted in nicely as Roethlisberger’s backup. Jacob Eason, who went to the Colts in the fourth round would have also been a nice developmental prospect for a team that values big-bodied signal-callers with big arms.

Free agency is another tool the Steelers could have used to acquire a high-quality backup. Marcus Mariota would have been a great signing for Pittsburgh but he was probably too expensive for Colbert’s taste. Cam Newton might have been an interesting target but he wanted to wait for a starting opportunity.

That’s why Andy Dalton should have been the guy to come into Pittsburgh and stabilize their quarterback options. He has extensive experience inside the division from his days with the Bengals. He also has the right temperament to come into a locker room and avoid rocking the boat. Dalton would have been the perfect backup to protect the Steelers in case of an injury to Big Ben without really threatening Roethlisberger.

What can the Steelers do now?

The options still available to Pittsburgh aren’t great. There’s a reason why quality quarterbacks fly off the board in both free agency and the draft. Every team in the league understands how precious talent at the position is.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t guys out there on the open market that are better than both Rudolph and Hodges. That’s a relatively low bar of success for the Steelers to shoot for.

Blake Bortles is the most interesting veteran who is still looking for work. He is never going to live up to the hype of being the No. 3 pick of the 2014 NFL Draft. Jaguars fans grew weary of his inability to develop into an accurate NFL starter.

His most recent coach, Rams’ head man Sean McVay, is still surprised that Bortles hasn’t found a job this offseason. Perhaps it’s telling that Los Angeles looks content to go with John Wolford as their backup in 2020 instead of bringing Bortles back into the fold. On the other hand, that seems to be more of a financial issue for a Rams team that is right up against the salary cap.

Even if Bortles doesn’t improve at all from his days at the Jaguars starter, he would still give the Steelers a backup quarterback capable of keeping their offense afloat in the event of a Roethlisberger injury. He’s not going to save Pittsburgh if Big Ben goes out for the year again, but he would give them a fighting chance of staying in the playoff mix if Roethlisberger is forced to miss a month or less of action.

Pittsburgh could also still look to execute a trade during the preseason to strengthen their options at quarterback. Someone like Josh Rosen could really benefit from moving to the Steelers. The Dolphins don’t need to keep him as their third-string option behind Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tua Tagovailoa. Any sort of meaningful draft asset would be enough to pry him away from Miami.

Rosen, similar to Bortles, is not going to suddenly live up to his pre-draft hype upon arriving in Pittsburgh. He’s also still a much better prospect than either Rudolph or Hodges. The relatively small price the Steelers would need to pay for Rosen makes it easy to understand just how straightforward improving their backup quarterback situation can be.

So what will Pittsburgh do?

This is really the toughest question to answer. The Steelers front office has had several prime opportunities to upgrade their quarterback options, but have let them pass by with utter and complete silence.

That doesn’t mean the organizations’ stance won’t change dramatically if Rudolph and/or Hodges play poorly during the team’s preseason work. The absence of actual preseason games may make it difficult for either guy to play poorly enough to necessitate a move, but there should be scrutiny on the pair as the regular season approaches.

In the end, Steelers fans should hope to see their favorite franchise move on from Hodges before the regular season begins. The fact that Rudolph was a third round pick likely means he’s safe for the foreseeable future. Hodges was acquired as an undrafted free agent. It’s much less painful for the Pittsburgh front office to admit failure with him.

Even if that happens, it’s more likely that the Steelers will roll the dice on the fourth quarterback in their camp than add anyone from the outside. Maybe they can succeed with Paxton Lynch where the Broncos failed.

Next: 5 toughest NFL free agency decisions looming for teams in 2021

No matter what, the Steelers’ front office deserves an avalanche of criticism for their failure to upgrade their backup quarterback options in 2020. It’s too large of a risk for such a smart franchise to take.

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