Should the Steelers move on from Ben Roethlisberger?

Michael Harms , Courier Staff

Welcome to keeping up with the Steelers. On this encounter, we examine who is the drama queen now, who should the blame be put on and what drama will happen next.

Antonio Brown is gone, Le’veon Bell is gone and now the only killer B remaining on what used to be the most explosive offense in the NFL is Ben Roethlisberger. The question now is why such a dramatic split, and who will lead Pittsburgh through this mess?

A leader is more than someone that plays well on the field. They control the mood, tempo of the team and can influence the entire locker room. The Pittsburgh Steelers captains last year were Markice Pouncey, Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward and Chris Boswell. Pouncey is one of the best centers in the NFL and has long been a large and understanding voice in Pittsburgh. Heyward is the same way. He’s dominant on the field and is also a voice in the locker room that everyone listens to. He even bought the entire team nice snuggly pairs of Ugg’s in 2017 for Christmas. Boswell earned his C on his jersey for his campaign in the 2017 season, winning multiple games and earning an all-pro selection. Roethlisberger’s captain decision is simple. He won two Super Bowls and he is the quarterback.

The NFL has been a quarterback league. They are in charge of running the entire offense, making audibles and split-second decisions that can win or lose games. To Roethlisberger’s credit, he has done his job exceptionally well in Pittsburgh. Since 2014, he has been in the top 10 for QBR and led a highly explosive offense. He has won two Super Bowls for Pittsburgh, one of which he was the game’s MVP, and is well respected and admired throughout Pittsburgh and its fan base.

Since the last Super Bowl with Roethlisberger, the team has drastically changed. Roethlisberger is now the only remaining player that won a ring with the Steelers. Most players have retired like: James Farrior, Brett Kiesel, Ike Taylor, Hines Ward, Heath Miller, Casey Hampton, LaMar Woodley, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu. While others left for other reasons including James Harrison, Lawrence Timmons and Santonio Holmes. Not to mention a key defensive player missing multiple years on IR due to a life changing injury, Ryan Shazier.

What this means is that the team lost its veterans that knew how to win and young talent emerged in the Steelers locker room. Brown and Bell both came in and made some serious noise both on and off the field. On defense, the leaders went from Harrison, Polamalu and Gay, to players like Artie Burns, Heyward, T.J. Watt and Terrelle Edmunds. The dynamic in the locker room began to change.

Players in the organization have talked about how the old ways of doing things are beginning to change. Roethlisberger is an isolated man trying to maintain what he believes is a winning mold of behavior. Without the help of his old crew, the new players failed to fall in line. Even with something simple as music. In a report by Jeremy Fowler on ESPN, he talks about Roethlisberger’s rules in the locker room.

“There’s an unwritten rule in the Steelers locker room that Roethlisberger works to protect — no blaring loud music during core business hour.” Roethlisberger says the Steelers’ setup has been this way since he arrived in 2004 and veterans such as Alan Faneca and Keisel kept the speakers off. He ends by saying “’I always tell [teammates], too — when I retire, you guys can change the rules, do whatever you want,” Roethlisberger said. “But I hope that I can pass down some of the same things that were passed down to me. I think that on gameday and even at practice, everyone wants to get prepared differently. How am I supposed to get prepared if this guy is listening to rap and this guy is listening to country and this guy is listening to hard rock? It’s hard to focus. So it’s just a matter of respecting everyone’s area and their process.”

Even with Roethlisberger’s rules, the team still blasts music the moment he leaves the building. The traditions are respected but seem to be ending. As the older players leave, the newer ones fail to continue the traditions; instead they make a new environment opposite of Roethlisberger’s plans.

Along with changes in traditions, players have also started changing who they looked up to. Brown started butting heads with Roethlisberger. Brown believed he deserved greater respect and a larger voice in the locker room. After five years continuously ranking as a top three wideout in both receptions and yards, and being the league leader last year in reception TD, he has an amazing resume and respect from the Pittsburg community. But this is a quarterback league, and Roethlisberger knows how to win. This is what led the Rooney family and the head coaching staff to call him the “unquestioned leader” of the team.

In fact, general manager Kevin Colbert said in an ESPN report with Jeremy Fowler, “If our players were smart, they’d listen to him because he’s been there. He’s done it. He can tell them, ‘No guys, what you’re doing is or is not good enough to do this.’”

It became apparent that Brown was not happy with that decision. He chose not to fall in line with Roethlisberger and his leadership style ended his time there with a trade to the Raiders. But these two players aren’t the entire locker room, so what did Roethlisberger do wrong?

According to other ex-Steelers, Roethlisberger himself ignored typical Pittsburgh Steelers traditions. Unfortunately, Roethlisberger tries to do most of the monitoring himself, publicly. Roethlisberger has not held his tongue on his thoughts on coaches and players with the media. After an interception in the final seconds playing the New England Patriots two seasons ago, Roethlisberger stated that he wanted to spike the ball to stop the clock while the coaches called for a play. Roethlisberger threw a pick and lost the game. He disagreed with the coach’s decision and stated that to the public. This year in a game where he threw an interception in the end zone intended for Brown against the Broncos, he blamed the loss on Brown, stating he ran the wrong route. He has publicly shamed rookies James Washington and Mason Rudolph as well. Through the media, Roethlisberger critiques his players and they are no consequences for these actions.

“When your leader can get cussed out by the coach, then anyone can be,” Ward said while remembering times in which Cowher cussed out leader Jerome Bettis, which created an environment that everyone had one goal to be a part of, The Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, coach Mike Tomlin and Colbert continue to be behind Roethlisberger’s and his decisions and actions. This creates an un-equal treatment of players. The Steelers organization has chosen to put Roethlisberger above others due to his experience and long-standing success with the team. And the other players had issues with this.

Now that Roethlisberger has started using the media to share his opinions on current players, ex-Steelers players are voicing their issues with him.

Former Steeler’s running back Josh Harris stated Roethlisberger fumbled on purpose in a game.

On his Twitter account he said “2014 week 17 we were playing the Bengal’s. Todd Haley called a run play with very little time left in the game. Roethlisberger wanted to kneel. He rolled his eyes in the huddle. He then purposely fumbles the ball. I had to recover it. At that moment I knew what kinda person he was.”

Whether this is true or not, it’s definitely up for debate, but it shows the crumbling dynamic of the Steelers as more and more current and ex-players are blaming other players in the media.

Roethlisberger believes he has earned his leadership role saying, “I think I have earned the right to be able to do that with as long as I have been here, and I’ll just be just as critical of myself [in the media], as well.” The real question is, has he earned that right?

Harrison doesn’t think so. “I don’t have a problem with it but I have a problem because you went out and you publicly said it to the media,” Harrison said in an interview.

This is another example of a former Steelers player stating that Roethlisberger was wrong to voice his frustrations and concerns with the media instead of keeping it an in-house matter.

Roethlisberger believes that his talent and expertise is all it will take to get back to the Super Bowl, or at least that is the message the front office is saying. But what about the defense? In the six times Pittsburgh has won a Super Bowl their worst defensive standing was third. In fact, the only Super Bowl that Mike Tomlin has won for the Steelers had the best defense and 20th best offense per ESPN stats.

Even in the second Super Bowl that Tomlin attended, the defense was his primary weapon. Going into the game, Pittsburgh’s defense rated first overall, the offense was ranked 13. Clearly, Tomlin creates success when he puts a primary concern on defense and defensive personnel.

Over the past few years Pittsburgh’s defense has been through turmoil. In 2014, Pittsburgh had the third worst secondary in the league according to ESPN stats and information. Last year they ranked 10th in passing yards allowed. They transferred from Burns at corner and relied upon Cody Sensabaugh and rookie Terrelle Edmunds to help their secondary.

Their defense took a large hit two years ago when Shazier injured his back against the Cincinnati Bengals. Their linebacking core has struggled to make up his absence as Bud Dupree struggled on the edge, and John Bostic just doesn’t have the same skills as Shazier. Luckily T.J. Watt added some edge rush ability and some young leadership for the future.

In the secondary, Pittsburgh transitioned from Polamalu, Clark and Gay to bring in Burns, Joe Haden and other young talent. Burns has found his way only on special teams. Haden may have talent, but he can’t shut down top receivers by himself. Sensabaugh and Hilton were nice assets last year, but Hilton is mainly in blitz packages, and his size limits his ability to cover larger wideouts and tight ends.

Should Roethlisberger be the unquestioned leader in Pittsburgh? He led the NFL in interceptions last year with 17. He led the league in RedZone interceptions and his worst quarter for QBR was the fourth quarter, which is where you want your players to perform their best, not their worst. With players on the team like Heyward, who is so dominant on defense and such a prominent leader for this team, why is he not the unquestioned leader for the front office? Only time will tell if the remaining players will work well with Roethlisberger. None of this should even matter. JuJu Smith Schuster said it best when he compared the Steelers to the drama-filled Kardashian family. Instead of worrying about where the next Lombardi Trophy will be, Pittsburgh struggles getting their team on the same page. Hopefully now the necessary changes have been made and the only problem now will be to get to seven first.