Bengals 27, Steelers 17: Ben Roethlisberger looks like he’s getting old fast

At least the Steelers didn’t suffer the most humiliating loss of Week 15.

A day after the 9-4 Rams lost at home to the 0-13 Jets, the Steelers fell 27-17 to the two-win Bengals on Monday night in Cincinnati.

Didn’t the Steelers realize that the Bengals eventually are expecting to have Joe Burrow back and don’t need to tank for Trevor Lawrence?

Unfortunately, it’s too late for the Steelers (11-3) to tank for Lawrence. Once upon a time during the 2020 season they won some games and therefore they have this playoff obligation that they need to honor. Once they show up on wild-card weekend, sip some wine and make a fashionably early exit, the Steelers can get on with an offseason in which they’ll have some hard decisions to make.

Anyone who took every word of the previous paragraph seriously, calm down. We all know that tanking is not in the Steelers culture. In fact, when they lost Ben Roethlisberger in Week 2 of the 2019 season, they immediately disabled any tanking mechanism by trading their 2020 first-round draft pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick, which helped them remain in playoff contention right up until Week 17.

No, the Steelers will try to win each of their remaining games. The problem is, they might not be able to. They’ve lost three straight games, two of them to sub-.500 teams, and are careening toward a one-and-done-playoff cliff.

Roethlisberger’s skills seem to be following that same downward trajectory. The 38-year-old has gone from the fringes of the MVP conversation at midseason to a steep decline. This doesn’t look like a gentle dip. This is starting to look like a case of an athlete getting old, and getting old fast.

The Bengals (3-10-1) took a 17-0 halftime lead as Roethlisberger completed just seven of 16 passes for 19 yards and an interception. It was his career low for passing yards in a half, according to Cincinnati.com.

Giovani Bernard gave the Bengals that 17-0 lead on a 14-yard touchdown reception from Ryan Finley with 4:20 left in the first half. That score was set up by Mackensie Alexander‘s interception. After Bernard’s touchdown, Roethlisberger remained seated on the sidelines with his head down. It wasn’t a comforting look. He normally would have been on his feet reaching for his helmet in that situation.

Roethlisberger is losing arm strength and mobility, and his memory also seems to be suffering the effects of aging. For the last few weeks, he’s forgotten that Chase Claypool is on the team. When Claypool finally caught a pass early in the third quarter Monday night, the Steelers offense found a spark. Roethlisberger threw a screen that Claypool turned into a 37-yard gain. On the next play, Roethlisberger threw a 23-yard touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson to narrow the Steelers’ deficit to 17-7.

Suddenly, Roethlisberger was fired up. It’s no coincidence, however, that it was a sideways pass that got him rolling. According to ESPN via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Roethlisberger completed just one of his 12 passes to receivers who were 10 or more yards downfield. That 8.3 percentage is the worst of any quarterback on Monday Night Football since at least 2005.

Even when the Steelers were on their way to an 11-0 start this season, Roethlisberger was missing on deep throws. It was easy to sweep that warning sign under the rug when he found success on short and intermediate throws. Now teams have that figured out.

Vonn Bell had it figured out when he blew up JuJu Smith-Schuster on one of those underneath routes in the second quarter. Smith-Schuster caught the pass and then coughed up the ball not far from the Bengals logo where he TikTok-ed before the game. That turnover set up Bernard’s first touchdown and a 10-0 Bengals lead.

Back when the Steelers offense could move the ball, it was Smith-Schuster who made the most clutch catches. But he also seems to have a penchant for fumbling in big spots in December. And while opposing teams don’t seem to care about his dances on their logo, considering the Steelers’ crisis could he maybe replace that little activity with something more constructive during his pre-game routine?

Smith-Schuster is one of the many free agents the Steelers will have to make a decision on this offseason. With each passing week, however, their quarterback situation is moving closer to the top of that decision tree.

Roethlisberger ended up completing 20 of 38 passes for 170 yards Monday. He dug too big of a hole with his ugly first half that included five three-and-outs. The Steelers matched the Bengals’ first half with 17 points in the second half. That meant that the defense had to shut the Bengals out in the second half, and that was asking too much from a unit that barely had time to sit down before trotting back onto the field again and again before halftime.

The Steelers have scored less than 20 points in four straight games that Roethlisberger has started for the first time since 2004, his rookie year, according to Stathead. Like Peyton Manning in 2015, Roethlisberger looks like he’s taking a dump every time he throws the ball.

At least Manning squeezed out one more championship with the Broncos in 2015, which was his final season. It’s getting harder and harder to see Roethlisberger and the 2020 Steelers even winning a playoff game, and the quarterback will take up $41 million of the Steelers’ salary cap space next season in the final year of his contract.

Is Roethlisberger worth more than 20 percent of the Steelers’ cap space? They could extend his contract and push some of that money to 2022, but right now Roethlisberger doesn’t look like he can finish this season, let alone play two more years.

If the Steelers cut Roethlisberger after this season, they could save $19 million in cap space, according to Steelers Wire.

That’s right. The idea of cutting Roethlisberger is not crazy. It has come to that. The argument against it, of course, is the fact that the Steelers’ quarterback of the future is not on their roster. They’ll be picking outside of the top 20 in the first round of the draft, so they won’t find their next franchise quarterback in this draft unless they uncover a hidden gem.

The Steelers could sign a retread like Jameis Winston to hold them over for a year or two. Trading for Sam Darnold is probably off the table now with the Jets unlikely to draft Lawrence.

Adam Schefter of ESPN reported before the game Monday night that Roethlisberger plans on returning in 2021. Roethlisberger’s face between possessions told a different story during the first half of the game.

How strange is it that we’re looking ahead to the offseason more than the playoffs?

It’s easy to forget that that Steelers still have some control over when their offseason actually starts. If they win one of their two remaining games, at home against Indianapolis and at Cleveland, they win the AFC North. If they beat the Colts, they clinch the No. 3 seed. Assuming the Chiefs get the top seed, the No. 3 seed wouldn’t have to encounter Patrick Mahomes any earlier than the AFC championship game.

But how are the Steelers going to beat the Colts or Browns, both 10-4, if they can’t beat the Bengals?

The only possible glimmer of hope to arise from Monday’s loss is Benny Snell‘s performance. He ran 18 times for 84 yards and a 1-yard touchdown. The Steelers’ 86 rushing yards were their highest total since Week 7. After weeks of darkness for Steelers running backs, is Snell finding light at the end of the tunnel? Keep in mind that only four teams are allowing more yards per carry than the Bengals (4.6) this season.

More handing off and less throwing might be the only way to keep Roethlisberger’s aging arm from falling off. He leads the NFL with 559 passing attempts this season.

For the Steelers to make any kind of playoff run, they’ll have to move the ball on the ground. While it looked earlier in the season like Roethlisberger could carry the Steelers’ offense to a championship, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he can’t.

Follow Mike @Steel_Tweets.

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