Steelers Beat Writer

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

So now we know.

Ben Roethlisberger will likely be back with the Steelers in 2021. He wants it. The team wants it. More important, Art Rooney II wants it, releasing a public statement this week after meeting with Roethlisberger stating exactly that.

A deal to lower Roethlisberger’s 2021 $41.25-million cap hit will get done.

But that wasn’t all Rooney’s meeting with Roethlisberger entailed, hence the wording of his statement.

“We were able to discuss a lot of things that relate to where we are and where we want to go,” Rooney said. “Ben assured me that he is committed to coming back and helping us win, and I told Ben that we would like to have him back to help us win a championship.

While the cap assurances are obviously part of that, so too was getting Roethlisberger to buy into running the ball more often.

The Steelers ran the ball 373 times in 2020, which ranked 28th in the league. In 2018, the last time Roethlisberger played a full season before last year, they ranked 31st in rushing attempts.

When Roethlisberger missed most of the 2019 season, they ranked 21st. See where we’re going with this?

Roethlisberger has the autonomy – as is the case with veteran quarterbacks – to change plays at the line of scrimmage. Often, Roethlisberger was calling audibles from runs to passes.

Part of the reason for that was because he didn’t trust the team’s running game to get the job done. But the Steelers are going to make fixing their running game the main focus of this offseason.

And when Roethlisberger trusts the run game, he actually does call more runs. In 2017, Le’Veon Bell’s final season with the Steelers, the team ranked 15th in rushing attempts.

Because they don’t have a quarterback who can run, the Steelers aren’t going to be a top-10 rushing offense anytime soon. But if they have a better back – and improved line – they can be better running the ball if they actually give it a chance.

And that starts with the quarterback.

n Trey McGowens was the first to go. Then came Xavier Johnson earlier this week. A day later, Au’Diese Toney left the Pitt basketball program.

Jeff Capel brought in four players in his first season as Pitt head basketball coach. Less than three seasons later, the only one remaining is Curtis Aiken, a little-used backup point guard whose father played for the program and still calls their games on the radio.

He was a legacy. Like Flounder in Animal House, so they had to take him.

So, in reality, Capel’s first recruiting class at Pitt is gone.

That doesn’t bode well for Capel’s long-term prospects with Pitt. Johnson and Toney were the team’s second and third-leading scorers this season. Both had gotten serious playing time in their days at Pitt.

But much like McGowens, who transferred to Nebraska after the 2020 season despite starting 63 games in two seasons at Pitt, they apparently couldn’t abide by Capel’s coaching style.

They wanted to do things their way, not Capel’s way.

Whatever happened to making a decision and sticking to it? Whatever happened to doing what’s best for the team?

The NCAA has made it easier for players to transfer than it previously was, and that’s not a bad thing given the way coaches can jump around with no recourse.

There are legitimate reasons for players to transfer. Doing so because the coach is being too tough on them isn’t one to me – especially not in the middle of a season.

That’s quitting on your teammates. And any team looking at bringing in Johnson or Toney should take that into serious consideration.

n The Steelers won’t have the cap space to sign many outside free agents. They’ll have limited cap space to sign some of their own pending free agents.

But two positions at which they should add a veteran player – on the cheap, obviously – are at center and tight end.

The Steelers figure to have a very young offensive line in 2021. David DeCastro is the only returning player with more than a year’s starting experience, even if offensive tackle Zach Banner is re-signed, which is expected. None of the team’s other offensive linemen outside of DeCastro has started more than 19 NFL games.

A veteran center would help ease some of the growing pains for a young line. Though there isn’t a center considered a first-round prospect this year, there are four or five who could go in the second and third rounds who might be capable of becoming starters.

But it’s not good business to force a rookie into the lineup.

A veteran tight end, meanwhile, makes sense because young tight ends typically take time to develop. And this year’s tight end draft class is not particularly deep.

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

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