PITTSBURGH – If it were up to team president and general manager Art Rooney II, the Pittsburgh Steelers would be in winning mode.

The goal for the 2021 season is a third ring for quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a seventh for the organization.

I would just say we are going to try and build a championship team for next year, Rooney said in January. Whether we get there or not, we’re not here to argue: Okay, it’s been three years. I mean, we’re not going to see it that way. We are going to put the best possible team on the field next year and do everything we can to be number one, win this division and move forward.

Nonetheless, the free agents have partially dismantled what kept them in the title race a year ago. The Steelers are saying goodbye to some of their championship-level defensive players, while retaining an aging, veteran quarterback and their favorite offensive weapon. With that, the Steelers are sending mixed signals about their intentions for 2021.

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Half the team seems to want to rebuild, while the other half clings to the hope that the quarterback will win another championship after not playing in a Super Bowl for ten years. After the first wave of free agents, the Steelers are in an identity crisis.

You have three very young, talented quarterbacks in the division, and if you keep Ben, you stop progress, said former New York Jets general manager and ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum. … If you pay someone for their past performance, it prevents you from paying others.

Earlier this week on Get Up, Tannenbaum called the Steelers one of the losers in free agency for retaining Roethlisberger and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster at the expense of a number of defensive players. Last week’s loss, combined with the loss of center Maurkice Pouncey, has put a team in a difficult position that believes the championship is still open.

I think it says a lot about Ben, from a competitive standpoint, that no one is questioning him as he heads off into the sunset, Tannenbaum said. I just think you’re losing important parts that can’t just be replaced. I think the defensive losses can be overcome.

Overcoming these anomalies will not be easy.

The Steelers have separated themselves from five defenders since the 2020 season – totaling 3,097 snaps of experience. With the $15.7 million salary cap reduction due to COWID-19 and big contracts on the horizon, there were many to expect, but they came at a time when the Steelers can’t afford them if they want to win in the near future.

Ben Roethlisberger will bring back JuJu Smith-Schuster, who could become quarterback last season. Seth Little/AP Photo

The domino effect that put the Steelers in this situation began with Roethlisberger signing a two-year contract with a $68 million extension in 2019. The Steelers have long restructured and extended their big-money players, but they could not foresee that a pandemic would result in a lower salary cap year at the time of their highest bill.

Roethlisberger would have had to count $41.25 million against the cap this season, the most in the league. A resignation or termination would still result in $22.25 million in dead cap. Instead, the Steelers agreed to a revised contract that reduced his cap hit to $25.9 million.

The Rooney family is loyal, and I think it served them well for 20 to 30 years, but I don’t think it was in their best interest in the short term, Tannenbaum said. You pay someone for their past performance. I’ve had aging quarterbacks in my career, and I think it’s one of those things when you look at Ben, you look at the numbers, there’s tape that matches the numbers, and you just see that he always seems to have been the big face of the franchise. But if I had to win a football game, I’d take Joe Barrow, Lamar Jackson or Baker Mayfield.

Shifting those funds to the 39-year-old quarterback made money scarce for 19 unrestricted free agents, many of whom were starters or promising young talent.

Defensively, Mike Hilton, Bud Dupree and Tyson Alualu have signed lucrative contracts with other players in free agency. Defensive back and special teams ace Olasunkanmi Adeniyi joined Dupree and also signed with the Titans. Versatile offensive lineman Matt Filer has signed a three-year, $21 million contract with the Los Angeles Chargers.

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The Steelers then fired veteran inside linebacker Vince Williams and cornerback Steve Nelson, saving $4 million and $8.25 million, respectively, on the budget. Nelson’s release mostly stirred controversy because while he made room, he was a solid corner opposite Joe Haden for two seasons after being given the most lucrative contract given to a Steelers free agent in the first week of the signing period.

Of the money the Steelers spent, $8 million – but only $2.4 million – went to Smith-Schuster. He returns to a one-year contract with four years left, after it became clear he could safely leave in Free Agency. This gives Roethlisberger a safety blanket of sorts for what will likely be the signal-caller’s final season, but it’s a questionable allocation of resources with wide receiver space still full and plenty of holes to fill at the defensive, offensive line and running back positions.

Smith-Schuster is, in my opinion, a good player, a good teammate, but I think they’ve done a good job of selecting, developing and acquiring young receivers, Tannenbaum said. Deonta Johnson, Chase Claypool. If you look at Smith-Schuster’s production, 97 catches are fantastic, but when it’s under 9 yards.

I’ve worked for a lot of great defensive coaches: Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells, Rex Ryan, Eric Mangini. From a defensive standpoint, you hope to get the ball to a receiver who averages less than 9 yards per catch.

It’s been more than 10 years since the Steelers won the last Super Bowl. They want to win another Lombardi trophy before Roethlisberger is out, but with the cap crisis and tough Free Agency decisions, that seems unrealistic.

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