Reincarnated Ben Roethlisberger: Still a threat to Cleveland Browns or not?

CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 09: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers gets sacked by Myles Garrett #95 of the Cleveland Browns in front of Alejandro Villanueva #78 during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 9, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
CLEVELAND, OH - SEPTEMBER 09: Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers gets sacked by Myles Garrett #95 of the Cleveland Browns in front of Alejandro Villanueva #78 during the first quarter at FirstEnergy Stadium on September 9, 2018 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

Big Ben will be back in the Burgh, but can he still beat the Cleveland Browns?

News out of Pittsburgh is that perpetual Cleveland Browns nemesis Big Ben Roethlisberger is going to strap it up one more time to do battle at least two more times versus the Browns. He had a meeting with Art Rooney II and the front office and agreed that they would work out something with his currently bloated $41 million dollar contract, which would otherwise force the Steelers to cut him.

When we last saw him, many thought that he had been completely destroyed by your Cleveland Browns, after throwing four interceptions in a 48-37 loss. Poor old geezer.

However, if the Steelers provide him with an offensive line and a running game to take the load off his overhauled elbow, he may in fact have some more fuel in the tank, and the Browns may not have completely dispensed with him after one playoff win.

In the NFL, it’s hard to actually stink up the joint while throwing for 500 yards and throwing for four touchdown passes and leading the offense to 37 points, but that seems to have been the media perception of Roethlisberger after the Browns playoff victory. Big Ben had become too old and decrepit to win by the end of the year, and the world belonged to young Baker Mayfield and the Browns, who, by the way, nearly went on to upset the Kansas City Chiefs in the next playoff game.

The world changed a lot last season. The first time they played, Cleveland the same old expansion team Browns, losing at Heinz field 38-7, conclusively proving to ESPN and Fox experts that Baker Mayfield could never beat a division rival or a playoff-caliber team. Never, never, never. And it was all Baker Mayfield’s fault, and the Browns needed to cut him as soon as they possibly could.

Colin Cowherd proclaimed that the Browns would make this decision by the end of the October, and ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith proudly announced that he had flatly given up on Mayfield and the Browns.

Roethlisberger seemed to have completely recovered from serious elbow surgery from the 2019 season. The Steelers were playing with a hyped-up roster on the play-now-pay-later plan with several players with back-loaded contracts that would come due in 2021. But life was good in 2020, and the roster seemed to be talented enough to win the Super Bowl as they got off to an 11-0 start. The Steelers really were that good at the beginning of the year, but they did not have the depth to sustain it.

The second Browns vs. Steelers game, at the end of the season, was the resistible force against the moveable object, as the Steelers rested several regulars and the Browns had several regulars out due to Covid-19. Cleveland eked out a 24-22 win with Roethlisberger getting his beauty rest in preparation for the playoffs. Mason Rudolph passed for over 300 yards.

The regular season showed a Roethlisberger with steadily declining stats. In fact, the entire offense faded. The most compelling stat is that they began the year with five straight games in which they rang up 100 or more rushing yards.

Then, in  11 out of the next 12 games, they failed to reach the century mark in rushing. In fact, seven times they had 52 rushing yards or fewer. When the Steelers cannot run the ball, they basically cannot play football. Hence they went 11-0 to start the season, and they finished 12-5.  All teams have injuries, but the Steelers did not have answers when they lost Zach Banner, Stefen Wisniewski, and Matt Feiler.

With no running game, their entire offense was to put Roethlisberger in the shotgun and have him run the West Coast dink and dunk, unloading the ball in about two seconds. Partly because he’s big and strong, the perception is that he is just a bomber. But he’s also very smart and every bit the field general that Alex Smith is.

By the end of the season, he was putting the ball in the air 50 times a game and he appeared to have lost some velocity. This analyst was on record saying there was something physically wrong with him. In particular, I was shocked at “Hail Mary” time in the Washington game, when he could scarcely loft the ball 40 yards at the end of the game. The real question is whether the noodle will come back with proper maintenance in 2021.

He looked a lot better, arm-wise, after an extra week’s rest for the playoff game. In fact, the Steelers began the game with center Maurkice Pouncy — who also received a week off — showing extra arm strength, lofting a pop fly over Big Ben’s head. So there’s no way to be sure, but it appeared as though the factory rebuilt elbow might now have been permanently damaged in 2020.

The Steeler’s big problem was their offensive line really did become decrepit as the year went on. Statistically, the Steelers’ line looked okay because they were not giving up sacks, but it was mainly because Roethlisberger was able to get rid of the ball very quickly.

In 2021, the Steelers are going to have to cut several big contracts and will not have the super talented roster that they had for the first half of 2020. That doesn’t mean they will be terrible, however. They are going to get rid of some ineffective veterans on offense and re-establish the running game and if they succeed they might be all right with Roethlisberger one more year.

If Roethlisberger can throw for 500 yards when he is having a horrible game — which he did — it’s not quite time to stick a fork in him. He’s still dangerous but probably not the top five quarterback that he was when he was in his early 20s.

Myles Garrett and company are not going to have trouble achieving radar lock-on, but the big guy is pretty good at unloading the leather before the squad arrives to sack him. Roethlisberger is not as easy to sack as people think.

The Steelers will not be the same team they were last season, but if they fall short of the 2020 team in a number of areas, they will still be dangerous, as long as they improve the O-Line and run the ball. They might still be a nine or 10-win team. That’s nowhere near what we saw in the first half of 2020, which looked like a Super Bowl team and did beat up on the Chiefs, by the way.

Cleveland is a good team now, but they are not so good that they can afford to start taking division rivals lightly. The Browns are probably better than the Steelers but not prohibitive favorites. Just as a point of reference, oddsmakers — courtesy of the Action Networkhave the Browns ahead of the Steelers in terms of odds to win the Super Bowl in 2021.

So the oddsmakers like the Browns a little better than the Steelers but it is not quite a torrid love affair yet.  It will be interesting to see if the Roethlisberger news changes the Super Bowl probability structure very much, if at all.

Next. Free agents additions that will fix Cleveland Browns defense. dark

Those Miami of Ohio kids are tough kids who bear considerable watching.