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NFL - US Sports: Can Steelers thrive without Roethlisberger?

From the moment Ben Roethlisberger entered the league to the day he bowed out, the Pittsburgh Steelers were perennial contenders, but can they thrive without him?

Big Ben cast a huge shadow and, in an era where success in the NFL has become almost wholly centred around quarterback play, it seems vital for the Steelers to replace him quickly.

First-round draft pick Kenny Pickett, +500 to be Offensive Rookie of the Year, will get a chance at some point in his rookie season to prove his worth - so how can the Steelers ensure he comes into a winning situation?

Trubisky a placeholder for Pickett

The Steelers are potentially years away from having a QB as good as Roethlisberger - or even as good as he was in his first year when Pittsburgh won 15 regular-season games.

The fanbase wasn't particularly excited by the move to bring former Chicago Bears starter Mitch Trubisky in on a two-year deal a month before the draft.

But the selection of Pickett has proved popular and head coach Mike Tomlin says the former Pitt star "certainly has a chance" to be the team's starting quarterback in Week 1.

The 23-year-old from New Jersey amassed 4,319 passing yards and threw for 42 touchdown to set new school records in 2021, going on to finish third in the Heisman Trophy voting.

But most NFL sages expect Trubisky, who holds the Bears franchise record for career passer rating (87.2) and career completion percentage (64%), to start in Week One when the Steelers take on the AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals.

Steelers still have other strengths

Pittsburgh still have their fair share of playmakers on both sides of the ball - not least All-Pro edge rusher TJ Watt. He tied the NFL's single-season sack record with 22.5 last season and will be an offensive coordinator's nightmare again in 2022 as he enters his peak years.

Another breakout star with playmaking potential came out of the 2021 draft as running back Najee Harris looks set to build on a superb first year in Pittsburgh. The 24-year-old finished fourth in rushing yards and fourth in all-purpose yards while leading all NFL running backs in receptions.

Both players have characteristics that hark back to Steelers teams of old, which were known to be dominant on the defensive front and relentless in their rush attack.

Latterly, the Steelers seem to have lost some of their old identity on both sides of the ball, but they reached the playoffs despite starting the year 1-3 in 2021 and clearly still have plenty of toughness around the roster.

Pittsburgh pursued linemen and receivers

Aside from the quarterback moves, Pittsburgh targeted wide receiving talent and bolstered their offensive line during the offseason.

George Pickens - who is rarely seen without a silver balaclava - could prove to be a second-round steal and is making enough of an impression in practice to suggest he has starting potential already. He possesses the size, ball skills and athleticism to be an X receiver-type who primarily runs a vertical route tree, although initially his opportunities will come in the slot role.

Fellow wideout Calvin Austin arrived later in the draft and will provide depth to a unit that already boasts Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, two established starters that are approaching their primes.

The Steelers O-line was in need of some surgery after ranking a lowly 24th in the league as a run-blocking unit, according to PFF. Roethlisberger's ridiculously rapid average release times papered over the cracks in their pass protection, so Pittsburgh went out and acquired two solid interior linemen in James Daniels and Mason Cole via free agency.

This unit will have to be solid as a rock by the time Pickett is parachuted into the huddle as the rookie won't have the same instincts for survival that Big Ben had developed down the years.

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Tomlin's track record will be put to the test

The continuity and consistency Tomlin provides will be crucial in transitioning to the post-Roethlisberger era and it's remarkable to think that the Steelers HC has still finished no worse than .500 in each of his 15 seasons on the job so far.

That record will be tested in 2022, but the organization have brought in more solid coaching experience with the addition of ex-Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores to their defensive staff.

If this team fails to contend in the short term, it won't be for the lack of leadership and direction.

Long road back to Super Bowl contention

While the journey to greatness could be a bumpy ride in Pittsburgh, the long-term prospects for the Steelers look good.

Patience will be needed with Pickett, but the front office have addressed other key needs which will help him make progress and maybe, even by year two, Pittsburgh could be back in the conversation for another Super Bowl appearance.

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