How the Steelers Wild Card loss is already impacting change within the organization

One of the more bitter pills to swallow is that of the Steelers recent loss several weeks ago during the NFL’s first “Super Wild Card Weekend”.

In a rematch from Weeks 6 and 17 during the regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers would once again face their AFC North division rival, the Cleveland Browns. The rivalry, however, wasn’t quite as it once was – usually one of the teams has to keep it interesting.

In the case of the Steelers, they hadn’t lost to Cleveland on a regular basis in over a decade. Head Coach Mike Tomlin was a combined 22-4-1 against the Browns in his career heading into the final week of the regular season. QB Ben Roethlisberger, who would sit out the final game of the year, had never lost to the Browns at home, with a 13-0 record.

In fact, until this season, Big Ben also held the record for most wins by a quarterback at First Energy Stadium, the home of the Cleveland Browns. He is now second to an actual Browns quarterback, with Baker Mayfield having taken the record for himself.

Sadly, these games didn’t go as planned for the Steelers.

Forced into a scenario where there was nothing to gain by a victory, Mike Tomlin decided to rest many of his starters in Week 17, which was a must-win game for the Browns to make the playoffs. Their win, combined with the collapse of the Miami Dolphins in December, saw Cleveland make their first postseason in 18 years, setting up a rematch the following weekend against Pittsburgh.

The Steelers, who started the season 11-0, were once on the fast track to Super Bowl LV. However, an awful start which saw a bad snap by C Maurkice Pouncey, as well as multiple interceptions by Roethlisberger, put the Steelers behind 28 points, in which they were unable to recover.

It is probably one of the most stressful losses that the Steelers won’t soon forget, as they dropped two consecutive games to Cleveland. As the odds detoured to the Browns, here’s how that Steelers Wild Card match may change the team for years to come.

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Quarterback Position

Ben Roethlisberger’s cap hit has been the subject of controversy even before the season began.

Many were skeptical of the money tied up in the quarterback’s contract as he approached an improbable comeback.

Roethlisberger returned, impressed, then regressed, sending everyone on an emotional rollercoaster ride that jumped from “he’s back”, to MVP talks, and then potential retirement.

The Week 17 contest gave fans a glimpse of whether or not Mason Rudolph could also take the reigns if and when Ben steps, or is forced, aside. The low-risk addition of Dwayne Haskins could provide upside and/or insurance for either Ben or Mason, should either falter in 2021. (Also provided Haskins doesn’t fall out of favor before then as he did in Washington.)

Regardless, the loss forced the Steelers to start thinking about their future without Roethlisberger. Seemingly unhappy with previous quarterback additions Joshua Dobbs and Devlin Hodges, Haskins will now compete for a roster spot this Summer.

They could still be joined by another to-be-named player or even a draft pick, but for now, we all know based on the last month, that the organization is objectively keeping an eye on the position by giving Rudolph playing time and signing Haskins to a one-year deal.

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Offensive Coaches

Offensive Coordinator Randy Fichtner was likely on his way out before the 2020 season even kicked off.

Last year, the Steelers added a quarterbacks coach for the first time in two seasons since Fichtner took over as the OC. Previously, Fichtner had manned both positions, but former Pitt offensive coordinator Matt Canada came in to coach the QBs.

Canada was already rumored to be a hot NFL coaching prospect. With the Steelers bringing him aboard, signs were pointing to him as a potential replacement for Fichtner, should his contract not be renewed beyond 2020.

It wasn’t.

After rumors leaked of Canada’s promotion, the team made the announcement official on Monday after conducting a round of interviews which included the likes of Hue Jackson and Pep Hamilton.

Tight ends coach James Daniel also stepped aside with a planned retirement. The team recently announced Alfredo Roberts as his replacement. Roberts spent the last four seasons as a running backs coach with the Chargers and has 17 years of various coaching experience working with different offensive position groups.

As of publishing this article, the Steelers are also looking to replace offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett, who was let go following the season too.

The changes point to improving a mediocre offensive output by the Steelers over the last two seasons, where they have finished 30th in yards and 27th in points in 2019, and 24th and 12th respectively in 2020.

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The axe has already fallen on at least one Steelers player who will be walking away from football, but more could be coming.

Tight end Vance McDonald announced his retirement last weekend after playing eight seasons, split between the 49ers and Steelers.

A rough and tumble player now entering his 30’s, the move wasn’t all too surprising as McDonald’s name started to surface as a potential cap casualty heading into a 2021 offseason where the Steelers need to find savings for their roster spending. (Which is currently $21 million over the cap.)

Could more retirements be coming?

Some speculated on what it meant when Ben Roethlisberger and Maurkice Pouncey sat on the bench following the conclusion of the Wild Card game while everyone else went into the locker room. Many figured this might be the two long-time friends saying goodbye.

Those rumors further circulated in the days following, then cooled off before being warmed again by Pittsburgh area reporter Gerry Dulac (who isn’t one to often make speculative statements such as these).

Another offensive lineman could also be on his way out, as Alejandro Villanueva’s contract expires heading into 2021 free agency. At 32 years of age, Villanueva had several interesting interviews about his present-day life of avoiding social media (he doesn’t own a smartphone) as well as his daily routine. Criticism of his play this season combined with becoming a free agent don’t bode well for his pro career. He could simply retire and walk away after earning a healthy $24 million contract in 2017.

One more player to keep an eye on is CB Joe Haden, who turns 32 in April.

Haden, who was drafted in the first round by the Cleveland Browns, missed both opportunities for revenge games at the end of the season due to being placed on the COVID-19 list.

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Cap Hits

Haden currently accounts for the third-largest cap number on the team for 2021. With one season remaining on his deal, the Steelers could save $7 million in cap space by releasing the veteran before June 1st.

Still one last name to add to the list is Ben Roethlisberger himself. As noted above, Ben has a big cap number – $41.2 million. However, only $19 million of that would be a savings to the team, should they move on from Ben before the third day of the new league year which begins in March.

Maurkice Pouncey represents the sixth-largest cap hit on the team and would save $8 million toward their 2021 accounting if he were no longer with the team this upcoming season.

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Free Agents

The 2017 Steelers draft class will also be scheduled to hit free agency in March. This includes JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, and Cameron Sutton.

CB Mike Hilton and LB Bud Dupree are two other defensive starters who are set to become unrestricted free agents also.

With the Steelers current cap woes it may come down to an either-or scenario with several of the players listed in this section and the cap hits above.

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Final Thoughts

The Cleveland loss definitely represents a number of tough decisions for the Steelers going forward. They have already cut ties with coaches who were not productive enough to get the job down against the Browns.

They may also be facing that with two players, Roethlisberger and Pouncey, who were responsible for the collapse.

They also saw what their team looked like without Joe Haden roaming the secondary as well.

As is the business of pro football we can’t expect the same team to stick together for very long. Even two or three years is a lifetime in the NFL. The only certainty is that the 2021 edition of the Steelers will look drastically different from the one we saw in 2020.

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