By virtue of being the only team above .500 in a disappointing division, the Steelers head into Week 7 as the AFC North front-runner. To stay there, they’ll have to find some way to stay afloat without their superstar quarterback.
Ben Roethlisberger reportedly will miss four to six weeks after undergoing surgery on his meniscus Monday—a timetable that pushes back Roethlisberger’s projected return multiple games beyond the initial expectation. Even at the four-week minimum, Big Ben would be out Sunday vs. New England, as well as for Pittsburgh's matchups with Baltimore and Dallas following a Week 8 bye.
That's a significant stretch, one that could go a long way in determining the Steelers’ postseason fate. Making matters worse, the Steelers sleepwalked their way through a Week 6 loss in Miami, preventing them from building any substantial cushion to lean on in Roethlisberger’s absence.
Of course, there’s never a good time for the Steelers to lose Big Ben. Their offense is built around what he can do in the pocket and out of it. He leads the league in passing TDs this season (16) after pacing all QBs in yards per game the past two years (328.2 in 2015).
Without him in the lineup, the Steelers become far less dangerous as an offense. That’s typical of most forced starter-to-backup transitions in the NFL, but Roethlisberger’s ability to manipulate plays inside and out of the pocket push it toward the extreme here. In the four games that Pittsburgh started either Michael Vick or Jones last season, its average points dropped by a full touchdown (27.5 to 20.5). Passing yards plummeted, too, down to 162.8 yards per outing.
The run game became the focal point during Roethlisberger’s 2015 absence—the Steelers topped 140 yards in each of the four games he missed and averaged 152.5 yards across all those weeks. So, expect even more of the Le’Veon Bell/DeAngelo Williams combo against New England.
If there is a silver lining in Roethlisberger’s injury, perhaps it’s in the backfield. The Steelers have running backs who can take over, but they also could stand to increase their output on the ground as it is. Bell only saw 10 rushing attempts in the loss to Miami; the week prior, the Jets held Pittsburgh to 61 yards on 24 carries. Even on a third-and-one near midfield Sunday, with Roethlisberger having his injured knee checked in the locker room, the Steelers opted to let Jones throw—he fired incomplete, Pittsburgh punted and Miami marched for a go-ahead TD before halftime.
“No need to sugarcoat it,” coach Mike Tomlin said after the 30–15 loss. “We got beat soundly.”
Reversing the mojo without Roethlisberger, against the Patriots, will be a monumental task.
Jones came off the bench in Week 6 last year to help Pittsburgh beat Arizona, thanks mainly to an 88-yard, catch-and-run TD from the now-suspended Martavis Bryant. He bombed in his two starts, though, the first a 23–13 loss to Kansas City in which Jones finished 16 of 29 for 209 yards, one TD and two interceptions. He was pulled early in start No. 2, in favor of a hobbled Roethlisberger.
All three of Jones’s touchdown passes last season found Bryant, whom he will not have available as he takes the reins this time. Jones targeted Bryant and Antonio Brown eight times each vs. the Chiefs, with Brown producing 125 yards.
Part of the immense challenge he faces this time around is there’s not even a surefire No. 2 option receiver to take the heat off Brown. The next most productive receiver, Sammie Coates, played with a broken index finger Sunday and did not haul in a catch. Brown, Bell and TE Jesse James (20 catches) have been Roethlisberger’s primary targets, but if the Patriots or any other team Jones faces can limit Brown—as the Dolphins just did—there’s little chance that Jones can spread the wealth elsewhere.
The Patriots currently rank second in points allowed (15.2 per game). Bill Belichick, with the help of defensive coordinator Matt Patricia, has long made a habit of hunkering down against the opposition’s top option and forcing them to turn to complementary players. The only question ahead of Sunday is he’ll stack defenders in front of Brown or if he’ll load the box to limit Bell/Williams, thereby forcing Landry to the air.
Either way, the schematic headaches are nowhere near what they are with Roethlisberger in the lineup. Big Ben’s ad-lib potential alone makes him a frustrating QB to defend, because he is so adept at breaking contain and keeping plays alive.
Jones has not shown anywhere near the creativity. He also, in four season, has shown little to indicate that he can be a successful NFL QB. Keep in mind that the Steelers opted for Bruce Gradkowski over him on the depth chart earlier in his career, then added Vick to serve as Roethlisberger’s immediate backup in 2015. He won the No. 2 job in camp despite a four-interception showing vs. Philadelphia in the preseason.
The other option for Pittsburgh barring a move is ex-Titan Zach Mettenberger, who was claimed off waivers in August. He does have eight more career regular-season starts under his belt than Jones, but he’s also 0–10 in those games with 14 interceptions.
So, there’s no way around what a jam the Steelers find themselves in until Roethlisberger’s ready. With Tom Brady & Co., rolling into Pittsburgh on Sunday to face a reeling Steelers defense, Jones likely will have to hang quite a few points on the board to pull off an upset.
That’s an unlikely outcome given what we know about Pittsburgh’s temporary QB.