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Ben Roethlisberger Is Not Finished Yet

There are limitations to the Steelers offense with their 39-year-old starter, but Pittsburgh hasn’t fully prepared for life without him yet  

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Strolling around during NFL training camp these past few weeks in his various permutations of straw hat and long sleeves, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada has looked a lot like a guy spending an indefinite period of funemployment on a barrier island beach somewhere. Which is exactly who the 49-year-old already was, not too long ago. It was right around this time in 2019, during the late-summer weeks typically occupied by football preseason, that Sports Illustrated asked and answered the question: “Where in the World Is Matt Canada?”

A rising star in college football coaching circles known in large part for his chaotic, innovative pre-snap formations, Canada was, at the time, in between jobs, spending his days roaming the shores of Topsail Island, North Carolina, where he and his family occupied a house decorated with references to his football résumé. There was the student assistant gig at Indiana in the ’90s, the breakout role as offensive coordinator at Pittsburgh, and the interim head coaching position at Maryland in 2018, among others. And a few months after that SI piece ran, there was a new situation: quarterbacks coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, a job Canada stepped into in January 2020 before being promoted to OC of the Steelers earlier this year.

For the past 17 seasons, on the other hand, no one (well, except for Antonio Brown’s sons) has been asking where in the world one of Canada’s current coworkers, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, is. That’s because the answer to that question has been constant: He’s starting for the Steelers, in shotgun formation, same as always. Drafted 11th overall in 2004, the 39-year-old Roethlisberger has outlasted nearly every one of his NFL peers, including quarterback contemporaries Eli Manning and Philip Rivers, both of whom retired in the past couple of years. (He has outlasted the younger guys, too: Earlier in 2021, Roethlisberger’s center for the past decade, 32-year-old Maurkice Pouncey, also retired.) He has won two Super Bowls with the Steelers, and reached a third. As recently as 2018, he led the league in passing yards. Only once has he started fewer than 12 times in a season: 2019, when he missed all but two games for elbow surgery.

Neither Roethlisberger nor the Steelers are blind to the predicament they currently find themselves in: staring into the sunsetting of the team’s longtime navigational aid and gravitational force. That 2019 season provided a grim glimpse into what a post-Roethlisberger era might be like, with Pittsburgh finishing 8-8 and scoring fewer points than all but five other NFL teams. But the 2020 season was maybe even more revealing: It underscored that even when Roethlisberger has a season in which he throws 399 completions (third best of his career!) and 33 touchdowns (second best!) it may be no longer enough. Last year, he was at the helm of the offense when the Steelers began their season with an 11-0 record. But he was also at the helm of the offense when the Steelers lost four of their next five and were blown out by the Cleveland Browns in the first round of the postseason, a loss that reinforced a different question: OK, what’s next for everyone involved?

Earlier this summer, Roethlisberger told The Washington Post that his team’s initial undefeated run last year was “pretty impressive considering everybody in the world knew what we were going to do.” By that he meant doing what he’s done forever: dropping way back, gunslinging, dilly-dilly!ing, drawing up the occasional audible. According to Pro Football Focus, last season the Steelers used shotgun formation nearly 80 percent of the time, fourth most in the league. Conversely, according to PFF’s Tej Smith, the team ran play-actions only about 10 percent of the time, the lowest in the league.

The Steelers pulled this off for most of last season, but it wasn’t sustainable, and a combination of the team getting kind of screwed by COVID-19 postponements as well as the Steelers’ opponents catching on to their One Cool Trick led to an embarrassing finish to the season. Former offensive coordinator and longtime Steelers employee Randy Fichtner was fired, relative newbie Canada was promoted, and the team seemed lukewarm on its future with its longtime, and still-under-contract, quarterback. “As we sit here today, Ben is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers,” team GM Kevin Colbert told reporters at the time, stating facts only. “He reiterated to us that he wants to continue to play. We told him we have to look at this current situation.”

The current situation is one in which the team is trying to position itself for a new era while ostensibly giving the status quo one last shot. Eventually, Roethlisberger took a pay cut and settled with the team on a one-year, $14 million deal. And then he began studying. “If you notice, I’m looking at the wristband quite a bit,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this summer. For starters, even the same old plays, under Canada, have new verbiage, Roethlisberger has said. And then there are all the other plays, the ones that are both different and new.

If Big Ben has built his reputation on one kind of offensive scheme, his offensive coordinator has established a name based on a very different system. During stops around the college game, Canada installed hectic offenses filled with pre-snap motions, jet sweeps, and made-ya-look multi-reverses; in that 2019 SI profile, one of Canada’s admirers even pointed out that some of his scrambly strategies had been adopted in the NFL by the likes of Andy Reid. At Maryland, where Canada became interim head coach in the aftermath of a player’s death by heat stroke and the subsequent firing of the top staff, his Terrapins team used pre-snap motions more frequently than all but one other team in FBS football.

It’s not just the plays that will be different for Pittsburgh this season, it’s also the personnel. While the team kicked the can down the road on wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, signing him for another year to keep him around in a move that took some of the more pessimistic Steelers fans by surprise, other elements of the offense will have a very new look this season. The Steelers lost most of its offensive line over the summer. They signed the embattled but talented young Dwayne Haskins as a backup quarterback who can complement and compete with Mason Rudolph in the search for Roethlisberger’s successor. (Haskins thrived in a recent preseason game.) And they used their first-round pick in the draft to select a running back, Najee Harris, who can help vary the offense from Pittsburgh’s usual. Already, there have been signs as to how it could look.

After 17 seasons of being a starting quarterback for the same franchise, Roethlisberger is about as powerfully veteran of an athlete as it gets in professional sports—a situation that stands in contrast to Canada, who according to the Post-Gazette is one of only two NFL offensive coordinators who didn’t even play college football. “I jokingly call them JAGs—‘Just a Guy,’” Steelers O-lineman Zach Banner told the Post-Gazette of the normies like Canada whom he’s encountered throughout his career. “Never had a touch of athleticism in their lives since high school, but they’re great at what they do. That’s exactly what Canada is.”

And so far this summer, there has been a bit of a cordial, collegial no-you-go-ahead vibe between Roethlisberger and Canada, both of whom seem to understand the slightly awkward liminal space between contention and oblivion that the franchise is currently operating in. In early June, Roethlisberger said he’d spoken to the coach and given him the green light to get weird. “We’ve had quite a few communications,” Roethlisberger said then. “He’s come over, we’ve talked. I told him, ‘I know this is your offense,’ and he’s like, ‘No, no, this is our offense.’ But I’m like, ‘No, it’s yours.’” A few weeks later, Canada told reporters: “We are going to do what Ben wants to do and how Ben wants to do it.”

A few weeks ago, Roethlisberger said that his 7-year-old daughter had been helping him learn his new playbook, with flashcards involved in the process. Not long afterward, Canada demurred when asked about his own innovative philosophies, saying that the Steelers run the “easiest offense in America.” And round and round we go.

So far this preseason, Pro Football Focus noticed, the Steelers offense has indeed run far fewer plays out of the shotgun, and employed more pre-snap motion, than they did last season. That said, they’ve done so without employing Roethlisberger at all thus far, preferring to rest him a bit more before the season begins. This weekend, when the Steelers play the Detroit Lions at Heinz Field in a preseason matchup, Big Ben will finally make his 2021 debut, head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters. And for Roethlisberger and the Steelers, these next few weeks and months could look a whole lot like Canada’s offensive schemes, both literally and existentially: fun to watch, chock full of reshuffling and pivoting, and almost certainly creating some goofy distractions for everyone along the way.