Steelers Beat Writer

Dale Lolley is a contributor to the Observer-Reporter and has been covering the Pittsburgh Steelers since 1993.

You can expect Ben Roethlisberger to be the quarterback of the Steelers in 2021. Beyond that, it is probably not happening.

But Steelers president Art Rooney II made it clear the team would like Roethlisberger back, so long as the team can get his $41.25 million salary cap hit lower.

For his part, Roethlisberger seems willing.

“I’ve haven’t sat down with him myself yet,” Rooney said this week. “He sat down with Coach (Mike) Tomlin and (GM) Kevin (Colbert), and Ben wants to come back. We’ve left that door open. We’ve been up front with Ben in letting him know we couldn’t have him back under the current contract.

“He understands we have some work to do there. We’ll have more conversations. We’ll have more conversations internally, and we’ll have more conversations with Ben. Obviously, we’ll have to know what the cap number is to finalize some of those decisions.”

Roethlisberger, who turns 39 this offseason, will be in the final year of a two-year, $68-million extension he signed in 2019. The Steelers bumped some of his money into this year with a renegotiation last spring, increasing his cap hit by $9.75 million.

But his base salary is just $4 million and he’s due a roster bonus of $15 million by March 19, putting a time table on any negotiations that need to take place. Rooney said that while the league hasn’t come forth with a hard number on the cap as of yet, he expects that number to be released to teams by mid-February.

And when it comes out, the Steelers will have some work to do to get under that cap. Their current expenditures put them at $215 million in cap spending. The cap is expected to be between $180 and $190 million, down from $198.2 million this season.

You see the problem.

What’s likely to happen is that Roethlisberger’s contract will be extended by two more seasons – even though he’s only likely to play in 2021 – allowing the Steelers to spread his remaining $19 million he’s owed over three years for cap purposes.

That would give them an additional $12 million in cap space in 2021 and mean they’ll have to come up with the rest elsewhere.

And the Steelers have $170 million in cap space available in 2022, so pushing Roethlisberger’s remaining cap hit into that season isn’t a big deal. It’s not like the Steelers are going to go on a free-agent shopping spree anytime soon, anyway.

“This will probably be the most difficult salary cap challenge that we’ve had in a long time, maybe ever,” Rooney admitted.

n Rooney said he wouldn’t mind running things back with last year’s roster – with some obvious improvements to the running game.

Despite a strong start to the season, the Steelers finished dead last in the league in rushing. That was a reason why offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett were not retained.

“We have to look at having a commitment to the running game and I don’t know that is something we’ve always had,” Rooney said.

New offensive coordinator Matt Canada has a clear mandate from ownership to improve that running game.

And you can bet that getting a feature runner will be at the top of the list.

Rooney spoke of James Conner in the past tense, and if I were backups Benny Snell and Jaylen Samuels, I wouldn’t be in the market to purchase a home in Pittsburgh.

“I think we’ve already started to make some changes to address that, and there are more to come,” Rooney said. “I think we are going to have some changes on the roster at running back this year with James being a free agent. There’s no question it’s something that we have to address. I think everybody in the building agrees that you can’t finish 32nd in the league in running and feel you’re going to have a successful season.”

You can expect the Steelers to address the running back position in the draft. But it also wouldn’t be all that surprising to see them add a low-priced veteran as well, as they did when they first had Le’Veon Bell and added veteran LeGarrette Blount, then DeAngelo Williams.

The Steelers have had the 32nd-highest paid running back room in the league the last three seasons. It’s not all that surprising that they had the 32nd-ranked running game in 2020 because of it.

That doesn’t mean you have to spend millions on a running back, but it also can’t be a position you ignore other than throwing mid-round draft picks at it.

Dale Lolley covers the Steelers for DKPittsburghSports.com and writes a Sunday column for the Observer-Reporter.

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