The narrative has quickly changed in Pittsburgh. A week ago, many fans and media members had all but cashed their chips on Ben Roethlisberger and the 2021 Steelers. And with the first-place Ravens coming to town, the Steelers appeared destined for a third straight loss.
Flash forward to this past Saturday, when a report surfaced that Roethlisberger told several coaches and former teammates that he anticipates that this will be his final season with the Steelers. The news created a different atmosphere the following day at Heinz Field. Instead of a crowd ready to pounce on the Steelers' first mistake, the fans rallied around their team and their quarterback..
It took three quarters, but eventually, the unwavering support of nearly 60,000 Steelers fans paid off. Roethlisberger engineered three fourth-quarter scoring drives in leading Pittsburgh to a 20-19 win. After the victory, Roethlisberger was unable to hide his emotion as he spoke with NFL on CBS Sports lead reporter Tracy Wolfson.
"He had tears in his eyes and he was extremely emotional," said Wolfson, who is also the host of the CBS Sports Network show "We Need To Talk." "I didn't ask him about if this your final time walking off the field in Pittsburgh facing the Ravens because I didn't feel it was my right at that point to do that. But there was emotion there. I understand it was a big win, but when those things start happening, you sense that he might feel that this is it."
Wolfson wasn't surprised to hear the report regarding Roethlisberger's future.
"I think it's pretty obvious," Wolfson said. "I think he's banged up. I think he's definitely taken a beating. His body's taken a beating. There's some disconnect. Just a week before, everyone wants to bench him. How do you bench a guy who is coming out and saying that this is final season? You're not going to do that. ... I would be surprised if Ben Roethlisberger decided to play on after this season."
Roethlisberger has flirted with retirement before. He told 93.7 The Fan after the 2016 season that he would take some time to evaluate his future before announcing in April that he would resume his career. While Roethlisberger's future was a common question following the 2017 and '18 seasons, those questions were momentarily muted when Roethlisberger signed a two-year extension in 2019 that kept him under contract through the 2021 campaign.
Despite a serious elbow injury that kept him sidelined for most of the 2019 season, Roethlisberger came back for a 17th season in 2020. He played far above expectations during the first three quarters of the season while leading the Steelers to an 11-0 start. But Roethlisberger and the Steelers began falling apart shortly after that. Pittsburgh won just one of its last six games that included a disastrous wild-card loss at home to the Cleveland Browns. The late-season slide, coupled with Roethlisberger's upcoming cap hit, led to questions regarding Roethlisberger's status for the 2021 season.
But after restructuring his contract, Roethlisberger did indeed return for his 18th season. Many of his former teammates, however, did not, including perennial Pro Bowl center (and his best friend on the team) Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro, left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, and running back James Conner. The Steelers also parted with Randy Fichtner, who prior to becoming Pittsburgh's offensive coordinator had served as Roethlisberger's quarterbacks coach. Given the turnover, the 2021 season promised to be a vastly different one for Roethlisberger and the Steelers.
With a re-vamped offensive line, new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster sustaining a season-ending injury after just five games, the Steelers offense has certainly gone through some growing pains. Pittsburgh's offense failed to score at least 20 points in five of its first 11 games. The line has struggled to open holes for Pittsburgh's running backs and at times has struggled to protect Roethlisberger, who has already been sacked more times this season than in any season since 2014.
The Steelers began to find their footing after a 1-3 start. Pittsburgh won four consecutive games as the offense began to find its rhythm. But a tie against the then-winless Lions (a game Roethlisberger missed while on the COVID-19 list) began a downward trend that resulted in consecutive losses in Los Angeles and Cincinnati. The defense struggled against the Chargers, while both sides of the ball could not get out of their own way against the Bengals. The loss to Cincinnati, one of the worst of the Roethlisberger era, inspired several former Steelers to publicly lash out on the current team.
As they have often done under head coach Mike Tomlin, the Steelers responded with their play on the field. Led by Roethlisberger, receiver Diontae Johnson, pass rusher T.J. Watt, defensive end Chris Wormley, and several reserves that include cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon and guard John Leglue, the Steelers defeated the favored Ravens on Sunday while keeping their playoff hopes alive. Despite some very bleak moments, Pittsburgh is just a half game back of the Bengals for the seventh and final spot in the AFC playoffs.
"I think it would be great if [Roethlisberger] could ride off into the sunset and they can make the playoffs and maybe have a run," Wolfson said. "They still have a lot of work to do before we get to that point."
Roethlisberger has had front row seats to one of the best endings to a career in NFL history. In 2005, Jerome Bettis capped off a Hall of Fame career by hosting the Lombardi Trophy in his hometown of Detroit. A decade later, Roethlisberger embraced Peyton Manning after the Steelers pushed the Broncos to the limit in Denver's divisional-round playoff win over Pittsburgh. Three weeks later, Manning won his third Lombardi Trophy before hanging up his cleats for good.
The odds aren't in their favor, but the Steelers could give Roethlisberger a similar sendoff if this is indeed his final season. Pittsburgh's odds would certainly improve if they are able to defeat the Vikings in Minnesota on Thursday night. At 7-5-1, Pittsburgh would then have a mini bye before hosting the Titans in Week 15. From there, Pittsburgh has road games at Kansas City and Baltimore and a primetime home game against the Browns in Week 17.
It won't be easy, but Roethlisberger has pulled off similar feats before as the first quarterback to win the Super Bowl as a six seed. Roethlisberger was aided by a dominant defense and a powerful running game back then, and he'll need just as much -- if not more support -- to have a chance to duplicate that magic in what is likely his last run at a third Super Bowl championship.
"I think they still have a lot to prove," Wolfson said. "I think the Steelers know that. [Thursday night's] game is going to be difficult because of the quick turnaround. It's always hard for a team to be able to do that, and especially someone like Ben, who does nurse injuries. He had told us he had a shoulder injury that he is dealing with his throwing shoulder. I saw him hit his knee in that game. At that point, you have to worry about health with this team.
"I think there was definitely some positives [against the Ravens]. T.J. Watt was playing out of his mind, and if the defense can play to that level, that's huge. The offensive line is certainly an issue with this team. … I'd like to see them connect on a few big passes and keep establishing the run with Najee Harris. He is tough. [But] he needs to break one, though. He hasn't had one of those games where he just breaks a big run down the field. He needs to do that. But establish the run, take the pressure off Ben again, and make some big plays. I think that's key for the Steelers."