The times they are a-changin' in the AFC North, and the Pittsburgh Steelers will have to spend one more season led by a veteran quarterback ill-equipped to help them stem the tide.

Pittsburgh made no secret of a desire to move on from Ben Roethlisberger this offseason, but the best the Steelers could do was to restructure his contract, with his new deal voiding after 2021, making him a free agent and likely ending a glittering career next year.

But that means they will have to go into the new season with a 39-year-old signal-caller coming off one of the most inefficient seasons of his time in the league, in which the Steelers started 11-0 only to fade badly down the stretch and suffer a humiliating playoff loss to long-time AFC North whipping boys the Cleveland Browns.

Cleveland and the Baltimore Ravens look well-placed to contend again, and the Steelers are in a position where the team around Roethlisberger must elevate him to levels that now appear beyond the two-time Super Bowl winner to ensure they can compete.

How should Pittsburgh go about achieving that goal? We attempt to find the answers by using Stats Perform data to analyse their 2020 campaign and their offseason moves so far.

Offense

Whenever he decides to bring his career to an end, Roethlisberger is a near-certainty to reach the Hall of Fame.

However, in 2020 he was at the helm of one of the least dynamic offenses in football, with Pittsburgh's struggles illustrated by a yards per play average of 5.13 that ranked a lowly 26th in the NFL.

The lack of a consistent downfield element to the passing game was a significant contributor to the Steelers' problems on offense.

Roethlisberger's yards per attempt average of 6.3 was the lowest of his career across seasons in which he has played double-digit games - it was 5.7 in his two appearances in 2019.

He had 43 pass plays that went for 20 yards or more, tied for 17th, though yards after catch was clearly a massive contributor to those plays. Pittsburgh ranked eighth with 50.4 per cent of the Steelers' gross passing yardage made up by yards after the catch.

His passer rating of 81.0 on throws of at least 21 air yards was 18th among quarterbacks with 25 such attempts and he completed only 30.2 per cent of those attempts (22nd of 28 QBs with a minimum of 25 attempts).

There were still bright spots on the passing offense even in a down year, the most prominent of which was rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool.

Claypool led all rookies with nine receiving touchdowns. Five of those were of a distance of at least 20 yards, with only Tyreek Hill (nine) and Nelson Agholor (six) recording more such touchdown receptions

Beyond Roethlisberger's issues pushing the ball downfield, the running game was a source of major frustration for Pittsburgh.

The Steelers were last with a yards per carry average of 3.62, their 32 runs of 10 yards or more were also the fewest in the league and only three teams had fewer rushing touchdowns than their 12.

If the Steelers want to maximise Roethlisberger's hopes of a bounce-back year, they must give him more support from the ground game.

Defense

The Steelers succeeded despite the travails of their offense in large part because their defense was again one of the best in the league.

Pittsburgh finished the year with the third-best mark in terms of yards per play allowed, giving up an average of 4.91.

Conceding 55 scores (touchdowns or field goals) from 188 opponent drives, the Steelers were second in opponent scoring efficiency behind the Los Angeles Rams.

Their stingy performance on defense was fuelled by a ferocious pass rush, which led the league in sacks (56) and knockdowns (129) while finishing fourth in hurries (180).

T.J. Watt was the leader of that potent front seven, the 2017 first-round pick missing out on Defensive Player of the Year despite leading the league with 15.0 sacks.

He lost out to Aaron Donald, who had the edge in terms of combined knockdowns and hurries, posting 94.5 to Watt's 83.

The efforts of Watt and Bud Dupree, who had 8.0 sacks before tearing his ACL in Week 12, helped the Steelers finish second with 27 takeaways.

Five of those takeaways were produced by Minkah Fitzpatrick (four interceptions and one fumble recovery) in another stellar campaign for the All-Pro safety.

While this was a second successive year in which the Steelers were a top-five defense in yards per play, elite play is typically tougher for defenses to maintain than offenses.

Performing to that standard for a third straight year will be a substantial challenge, and one that may prove beyond them if they cannot find a replacement for the departed Dupree.

Offseason

While there are elite talents at running back that should be within the Steelers' reach in the first round of the draft, the priorities should be two positions at which they now have holes.

The Steelers may hope Alex Highsmith can step up and fill the void left by Dupree - five of his six quarterback hits as a rookie came after he took over the starting role from the now Tennessee Titans pass rusher - but they will have much better odds of effectively replacing him by adding a draft prospect into the mix.

Of more pressing concern, however, is likely to be the left tackle position. The Steelers did not make an effort to bring back veteran Alejandro Villanueva, a move likely motivated by the depth of this year's tackle class in the draft.

If the Steelers can land a rookie tackle who can step in and can maintain solid protection for Roethlisberger while improving the line's ability to open holes for the backs, he will do more for an offense that badly stuttered down the stretch than any of the top runners in the draft.

Assuming they succeed in doing so, Roethlisberger will have an excellent support system around him once more, with Juju Smith-Schuster surprisingly returning to keep an excellent receiving corps intact.

Yet, after a dismal end to 2020, Roethlisberger's ability to make the most of that support system is firmly in doubt. As such, it would be no surprise to see the Steelers spend a day-two pick on a rookie passer who can provide better competition for a quarterback who is certainly not their long-term future and may not even be a short-term solution.

Ben Roethlisberger has agreed a new restructured contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers to keep him as the team's starting quarterback for 2021.

A $41.25million cap hit on Roethlisberger's previous contract meant his future with the team was in doubt as the offseason began.

After a meeting with the QB last month, Steelers president Art Rooney II issued a statement indicating the team's desire to have Roethlisberger back for an 18th season with the franchise.

Roethlisberger had also said he was willing to have his cap hit lowered and the two teams confirmed on Thursday – under two weeks before the start of free agency – that a deal had been done.

"It is my greatest honor to be a Pittsburgh Steeler and give my all for this organization," Roethlisberger said after the new contract was confirmed. 

"I am grateful to be at this stage of my career and more than happy to adjust my contract in a way that best helps the team to address other players who are so vital to our success. 

"I love this game and love to compete, and I believe in this team and my ability to deliver when called upon. 

"It all starts with great preparation and I am ready to go."

Roethlisberger helped Pittsburgh – who have one of the best defenses in the NFL - to an incredible 11-0 start last season.

But they ran out of steam badly down the stretch, losing four of their last five to finish 12-4 before a stunning 48-37 Wild Card playoff defeat to divisional rivals the Cleveland Browns.

Roethlisberger, 39, was coming back from a serious elbow injury which saw him miss all but two games of the 2019 campaign.

His play was steady but unspectacular, leading a Steelers offense that averaged 250.5 net passing yards per game, 15th best in the NFL.

Roethlisberger threw for 3,803 yards, 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 15 games, with a 94.1 passer rating (19th among qualifying QBs).

At 9.65 yards per completion – the lowest rate in the league – the veteran was more of a game manager than the downfield threat of old.

But despite fellow 2004 draftee Philip Rivers joining Eli Manning in retirement, Roethlisberger will play on in pursuit of a third Super Bowl.

"We are excited we were able to come to an agreement with Ben Roethlisberger on a new contract for him to return to the Steelers in 2021," said general manager Kevin Colbert. 

"We know that Ben can still play at a high level and do special things for this team. 

"Our goal remains the same – to put together a roster that will compete for another championship. 

"We are happy that Ben will be one of our leaders to help us accomplish that goal."

Ben Roethlisberger has publicly stated he would like to remain with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2021. The team has now confirmed the feeling is mutual.

Steelers president Art Rooney II issued a statement on Wednesday indicating the team's desire to have Roethlisberger back for an 18th season with the franchise, adding that they will soon enter negotiations to adjust the longtime quarterback's contract. 

"Ben Roethlisberger and I met [Tuesday] morning and we had a productive meeting. We were able to discuss a lot of things that relate to where we are and where we want to go," Rooney stated.

"Ben assured me that he is committed to coming back to help us win, and I told Ben that we would like to have him back to win a championship. We both understand that the next step is to work out Ben's contract situation.

"We owe it to him to have a conversation about how he wants to end his career, and we intend to that."

Rooney's remarks come one day after Roethlisberger's agent, Ryan Tollner, told NFL.com that the Steelers are open to his client's return on a renegotiated contract. The two-time Super Bowl champion carries a $41.25 million cap hit for 2021, the highest of any player, with the salary cap expected to decrease due to revenue lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"As we've shared since the season ended, we are happy to creatively adjust his contract to help them build the best team possible," Tollner said. 

Roethlisberger turns 39 in March and has drawn widespread speculation about his future due to his advanced age and Pittsburgh's current lack of salary cap flexibility, as well as a decline in play during the second half of a 2020 season that ended with a disappointing home loss to the Cleveland Browns in the AFC Wild Card Playoff round.

Making a successful comeback from a career-threatening elbow injury that limited him to two games in 2019, Roethlisberger threw for 22 touchdowns and only four interceptions while producing a 103.0 passer rating through his first nine starts of last season – all Pittsburgh wins.

The six-time Pro Bowler was intercepted six times and had an 83.2 rating over his next six starts, however, as the Steelers went 3-3 and eventually dropped to the AFC's No. 3 playoff seed. 

Roethlisberger did set an NFL postseason record with 47 completions while throwing for 501 yards and four touchdowns in Pittsburgh’s lone playoff game, but was picked off four times as the Steelers were dealt a 48-37 loss to the rival Browns.

The Pittsburgh Steelers want Ben Roethlisberger back next season and the star quarterback is "happy to creatively adjust his contract", according to his agent Ryan Tollner.

Roethlisberger revealed in January that he is planning to return for an 18th NFL season, ideally with the Steelers.

The 38-year-old's current deal would see him count for $41.25million against the salary cap in Pittsburgh.

As question marks remain over the two-time Super Bowl champion, Tollner provided an update on Tuesday.

"They want Ben back and will contact me soon to address his cap situation," Tollner NFL Network's Aditi Kinkhabwala.

"As we've shared since the season ended, we are happy to creatively adjust his contract to help them build the best team possible. A year ago, Ben wasn't sure if he could throw again, but he battled back to get 12 wins and the eighth division title of his career.

"They lost steam down the stretch and that doesn't sit well for him, so the fire burns strong and there is plenty of gas in the tank."

Roethlisberger threw for 3,803 yards with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2020, helping the Steelers finish the regular season with a 12-4 record that was enough to win the AFC North.  

However, after reaching 11-0 at one stage, Pittsburgh suffered a late-season slump that continued into the playoffs, as the Steelers lost 48-37 to divisional rivals the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card round.  

A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Roethlisberger threw four touchdowns and 501 yards but was also picked off four times in the defeat to the Browns on January 10. 

Ben Roethlisberger may want to carry on playing but it remains unclear if the veteran quarterback will be back with the Pittsburgh Steelers.  

Roethlisberger revealed in January that he is planning to return for an 18th NFL season, ideally with the Steelers. Such is his desire to stay with the franchise, the 38-year-old confirmed a willingness to restructure his contract.  

That current deal would see him count for $41.25million against the salary cap – a number that may be too high for Pittsburgh's taste. 

Speaking to the media on Wednesday, general manager Kevin Colbert said Roethlisberger could yet continue with the franchise, though stopped short of making any commitment to a player they selected with the 11th pick in the 2004 draft. 

"As we sit here today, Ben is a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers," Colbert said, according to ESPN reporter Brooke Pryor. 

"He reiterated to us that he wants to continue to play. We told him we have to look at this current situation." 

Roethlisberger threw for 3,803 yards with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2020, helping the Steelers finish the regular season with a 12-4 record that was enough to win the AFC North.  

However, after reaching 11-0 at one stage, they suffered a late-season slump that continued into the playoffs, as they lost 48-37 to divisional rivals the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card round.  

"Ben Roethlisberger did a lot of really good things last year. We anticipate that he could still do really good things going forward," Colbert continued.  

"Hopefully we can figure out how to do what's best for the organisation and for Ben. Hopefully he'll be able to see that." 

Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin had said it was "reasonable to assume there is a chance" of Roethlisberger returning for another campaign following the surprising postseason exit.  

A six-time Pro Bowl selection, Roethlisberger threw four touchdowns and 501 yards but was also picked off four times in the defeat to the Browns on January 10. 

Ben Roethlisberger wants to play another NFL season and said he is willing to do whatever it takes to remain with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The veteran quarterback addressed the swirling speculation about his future with the only franchise he has ever known on Thursday, telling The Athletic that he has approached the Steelers about restructuring the final year of his contract.

"I want to do everything I can and made that very clear to them from the very beginning that it was my idea to basically help the team however I can this year," Roethlisberger said. 

Speaking to a group of reporters earlier, Steelers president Art Rooney II affirmed that Roethlisberger has informed the team of his desire to play an 18th NFL season but added that keeping the two-time Super Bowl champion on the roster would be unfeasible with the Steelers' current salary cap situation.

Roethlisberger has a $41.25million cap hit for 2021, the highest of any player, and next year's cap is expected to drastically decrease due to a loss in league revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"I think we've been up front with Ben in letting him know that we couldn't have him back under the current contract. I think he understands we have some work to do there," said Rooney per ESPN.

"We'll have conversations internally, and we'll have more conversations with Ben, and we'll have to know what the cap number is to finalise some of those decisions."

Rooney would not say whether the Steelers would ask Roethlisberger to take a pay cut instead of restructuring his deal to spread the remaining $22.5m in guaranteed money across future seasons.  

He said: "I think that those are discussions we'll have with Ben and his representative. It takes two to figure that out, and whether we can agree with what he wants, we'll just have to see."

Rooney added the Steelers remain open to Roethlisberger, who turns 39 in March, returning next season despite his advanced age and decline in play during the second half of a 2020 campaign that ended with a disappointing home loss to the Cleveland Browns in the AFC Wild Card playoff round. 

"We owe it to him to have a conversation about how he wants to end his career, and we intend to that," he said.

Roethlisberger made a successful comeback from a career-threatening elbow injury that limited him to two games in 2019, though his effectiveness waned as last season wore on.

The six-time Pro Bowler threw for 22 touchdowns and only four interceptions while producing a 103.0 passer rating through the first nine games – all Pittsburgh wins. He was intercepted six times with an 83.2 rating over the next six as the Steelers went 3-3 and eventually dropped to the AFC's number three playoff seed.

Roethlisberger did set an NFL postseason record with 47 completions while throwing for 501 yards and four touchdowns in Pittsburgh's lone playoff game but was picked off four times as the Steelers were dealt a 48-37 loss to the Browns.

Despite the rough ending to 2020 for himself and his team, Roethlisberger expressed confidence that both remain capable of performing at a high level next season.

"I am pretty sure I want to go one more year," he said. "I think I can do it and give us a real chance at winning."

Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger have led the tributes to Philip Rivers after the Indianapolis Colts quarterback announced his NFL retirement.

Rivers, 39, spent the first 16 years of his career with the Chargers, initially in San Diego and later in Los Angeles, before joining the Colts for the 2020 season.

He led the Colts back to the playoffs with an 11-5 record and the team narrowly lost to the Buffalo Bills in the Wildcard Round in what proved to be his final game.

Rivers finishes his 17-year career ranked fifth all-time for both passing yards (63,440) and touchdown passes (421).

While Manning and Roethlisberger – the two other prominent quarterbacks drafted in 2004 – won two Super Bowls apiece, Rivers never made it to the big game.

But they insist it does not detract from his magnificent accomplishments.

Former New York Giants QB Manning wrote on Twitter: "Congrats to Philip on an outstanding career. 

"It was fun to watch my fellow Qb from 2004 draft class compete these past 17 years. Enjoy the next phase."

Pittsburgh Steelers QB Roethlisberger, whose own future is uncertain, added: "Philip, what a career! 

"An amazing competitor, winner and family man. It has been fun to compete against you and watch you do your thing for so many years. 

"I know countless kids have been inspired by you and will benefit from your coaching and football knowledge in the future. God bless!"

Colts head coach Frank Reich had previously said he believed Rivers had more left in the tank.

"Philip is one of the fiercest competitors and most loyal teammates that our game has ever seen," he said after Rivers' announcement. 

"His unwavering conviction as a leader and elite intelligence contributed to his Hall of Fame football career. 

"Philip made our game better and the National Football League was fortunate to have him.

"I wish Philip, Tiffany and the entire Rivers family the best and thank them for their contributions to our organization and community. 

"I am anxious to see Philip trade his helmet for the headset and do what he's always done best – bring his passion to the game of football and make others better."

Two of Rivers' prominent former Chargers pass catchers, Keenan Allen and Hunter Henry, were also quick to send him their gratitude on social media.

Allen wrote: "Husband, Father, Friend, Role Model, Professional, Warrior, Leader!

"Glad that I was blessed to be apart of your career. Showed up everyday like it was your last and never took any moment for granted!"

While Henry added: "Congrats stud. Insane career. 

"Thankful for everything you have done for me in my career. You were a true inspiration. Enjoy retirement stud!"

Houston Texans icon JJ Watt called Rivers "one of the smartest I’ve ever played against and a hell of a competitor".

Minnesota Vikings QB Kirk Cousins, meanwhile, said Rivers' career was worthy of a place in the Hall of Fame, labelling him "an example to follow as a QB, a team leader, a Dad, and a man of faith".

The Pittsburgh Steelers have announced the departure of offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner as part of a coaching restructure in the aftermath of their playoff exit. 

Pittsburgh started the regular season with 11 straight wins but laboured in the closing weeks, eventually finishing the regular season with a 12-4 record to top the AFC North. 

Their Super Bowl hopes were then ended early by the Cleveland Browns. Despite having home advantage, the Steelers were unable to recover from an appalling first quarter that saw them give up 28 points, eventually losing 48-37 to their divisional rivals. 

Head coach Mike Tomlin had promised to make changes when speaking to the media on Wednesday, leading to Fichtner, offensive line coach Shaun Sarrett and defensive backs coach Tom Bradley all being told their contracts would not be renewed. 

"I want to thank all three of the coaches for their commitment and dedication to the Pittsburgh Steelers," Tomlin said in a statement.  

"They have all played integral roles in our success and I am appreciative of their efforts. Personally, Randy and I have been in Pittsburgh since I hired him in 2007, but our relationship began well before that.  

"He has been a friend of mine for years and wish his family nothing but the best, and I am eternally grateful for our relationship both on and off the field." 

Fichtner had previously served in roles coaching Pittsburgh's wide receivers and quarterbacks before taking over as offensive coordinator in 2018. 

Pittsburgh averaged 334.6 yards per game during the 2020 regular season, though their total of 1,351 rushing yards ranked their running game dead last in the NFL. 

The changes may not be restricted to just the coaching staff, either. The future of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger - who has a year remaining on his contract - remains unclear, though he hinted after the postseason defeat to the Browns that he would like to come back next season.

Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said it is "reasonable to assume there is a chance" that star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will return in 2021 after the team's disappointing playoff exit.

Roethlisberger was not ready to discuss his future after the Steelers surprisingly lost to the Cleveland Browns in last week's NFL Wild Card clash.

The 38-year-old has spent his entire professional career in Pittsburgh, where he has become a franchise pillar and guided the Steelers to two Super Bowl triumphs.

But question marks emerged following the Browns defeat after Roethlisberger threw four interceptions – finishing 47-of-68 passing for 501 yards and four touchdowns.

Roethlisberger has one year remaining on his contract worth $41.2million and when asked about the six-time Pro Bowler, Tomlin told reporters on Wednesday: "I don't have a clear assessment of the overall impact of the cap ramifications, so I might not have a direct answer to your question.

"But I think it is reasonable to assume there is a chance that he will be back, certainly. The depths of the ramifications of the cap discussions, I am not privy to as I sit here right now."

Led by Roethlisberger, the Steelers opened the season 11-0 but he and Pittsburgh faded dramatically.

Roethlisberger finished his 17th season ranked third in completions (399), 16th in yards (3,803), tied for seventh in touchdowns (33) and tied for eighth for fewest interceptions (10).

"We haven't made any decisions about any of our personnel along those lines," said Tomlin. "All of those discussions are interrelated, and we are just beginning to scratch the surface in terms of what 2021 looks like in terms of the makeup of our team and the issues relative to it.

"In regard to Ben, I can't say enough about his performance this year. With the uncertainly coming off of injury, and particularly not having an opportunity to perform in preseason games and so forth, there really was a high level of concern about his health and his ability to perform. I can't say enough about his efforts. I can't say enough about the efforts of our medical staff and our rehabilitation staff that worked hand in hand with him to get him to that process and get him to stadiums this year.

"I was more than pleased with the performance of his health and his ability to stay up. In terms of the quality of his play and our play, we'll begin to assess that in the upcoming days, but in terms of him responding to the challenges that he specifically came into the season ready to face, spectacular."

Ben Roethlisberger was not ready to discuss his future after the Pittsburgh Steelers lost 48-37 to the Cleveland Browns in the Wild Card round on Sunday.

The Steelers were the last team to be unbeaten in the regular season before finishing 12-4 but committed three turnovers in the first quarter at Heinz Field, Karl Joseph returning Maurkice Pouncey's fumble for a touchdown on the opening drive and Roethlisberger throwing two interceptions.

It was the first time Pittsburgh committed three turnovers in the first quarter under Roethlisberger across his 17 seasons with the team, with the Browns taking full advantage to surge into a 28-0 lead.

The 38-year-old finished the game 47-of-68 passing for 501 yards, four touchdowns and four interceptions, but the damage had already been down.

Roethlisberger has one year remaining on his contract worth $41.2million and is yet to make a decision on whether he will return next season.

"It's going to start between me and God, a lot of praying. A lot of talking with my family, discussions, decisions," said Roethlisberger.

"I still have a year left on my contract. I hope the Steelers want me back, if that's the way we go. There will be a lot of discussions. But now is not the time for that.

"This loss is fresh. It's just sitting on our hearts and our minds right now. It will for a while."

On his performance, he added: "It wasn't good enough. When you lose a game like this, you can look back and evaluate all you want on the season, how you did during this game, that game, runs, stretches. I mean, at some point we'll look back on the whole thing.

"But when it doesn't end the way you want it to, you're always going to feel some kind of way, like you came up short or it's your fault."

The Steelers have not won a playoff game since 2016, with their past three appearances in the postseason ending in defeat. For the Browns, it was a first playoff victory since 1994.

Asked if he was accountable for Pittsburgh's recent failures, head coach Mike Tomlin replied: "It is what it is. Our record is our record. Our performances are our performances. Don't run away from that.

"We didn't perform well enough. Not coaching, not playing. You can chalk it up to the turnover game. But we weren't good enough in a lot of other areas, communication, in terms of detail. Just not a good night for us.

"In the single elimination tournaments, when you don't have a good night, you go home."

The Cleveland Browns claimed their first playoff win since 1994 with a 48-37 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

An incredible 28-point first quarter set up the Browns' victory at Heinz Field in their first playoff game since 2002.

Baker Mayfield completed 21 of 34 passes for 263 yards and three touchdowns, while Kareem Hunt rushed for two TDs.

Meanwhile, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was intercepted four times, throwing four TDs after completing 47 of 68 for 501 yards. The 47 completions were the most in a game in NFL history.

It was a series of early errors that cost the Steelers, the third seeds giving up 28 points in the opening quarter of the Wild Card round.

A bad snap led to Karl Joseph's touchdown after just 14 seconds and the Browns – without Kevin Stefanski after the head coach tested positive for coronavirus amid an outbreak at the organisation – piled on the points to begin the contest.

Roethlisberger, making his 22nd postseason start to break a tie with John Elway for the fifth most all-time, was intercepted by MJ Stewart Jr. and the Browns capitalised immediately, Mayfield finding Jarvis Landry with a 40-yard TD pass.

Hunt would rush for two scores to finish the quarter, either side of another Roethlisberger interception, as the Browns opened up a 28-0 lead.

The Steelers reduced the deficit in the second quarter before Roethlisberger connected with Eric Ebron and JuJu Smith-Schuster in the third, closing the gap to 35-23.

But Mayfield and Nick Chubb connected for a 40-yard TD early in the fourth quarter, all but ending the contest despite the Steelers' late push.

Turning point – Browns gifted dream start

Cleveland could not have dreamt of a better start to their first playoff game since 2002.

A bad snap went over Roethlisberger's head just seconds into the game and the Browns capitalised through Joseph.

It set the scene for the Browns and the rattled Steelers conceded a defining 28 points in the opening quarter. It was the most scored by any team in the first quarter of a playoff game since the 1970 NFL merger, as per NFL Research.

Browns get rolling

The Browns' 48 points marked the second time in franchise history they have scored 40-plus points in an NFL playoff game, according to NFL Research.

Cleveland's offense was allowed to get rolling early and they made the most of it.

What's next?

The Browns face the difficult task of a trip to Arrowhead Stadium to face defending champions the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Divisional Round on January 17.

Pittsburgh fell away after making an 11-0 start to the season and much of the talk about the Steelers is set to focus on the future of 38-year-old QB Roethlisberger.

Star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been rested by the Pittsburgh Steelers for their NFL clash with the Cleveland Browns on Sunday, meaning a potentially explosive return for Mason Rudolph.

The last time Rudolph faced Cleveland the game was marred by a post-play fracas involving Browns defensive end Myles Garrett.

Garrett was suspended for ripping off Rudolph's helmet and striking him over the head with it with seconds remaining.

Pittsburgh (12-3) have already clinched the AFC North crown but cannot claim the top seed in the AFC, prompting coach Mike Timlin to give Roethlisberger the weekend off.

Timlin does not expect a drop in intensity, however. He said: "It does not change our intentions, football is a game.

"Our job is winning. We intend to do our job, we're not seeking comfort. We're not grading ourselves on a curve, the standard that is the Pittsburgh Steelers will be the standard."

Cleveland (10-5) can also clinch a play-off berth with a win at FirstEnergy Stadium.

 

Even in the wake of a win that moved them to 11-0, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin saw the warning signs.

"It was really junior varsity, to be quite honest with you," Tomlin said in the wake of their narrow 19-14 victory over a Baltimore Ravens team missing MVP Lamar Jackson and a host of others.

But the Steelers evidently failed to heed the lessons from that near miss, which has subsequently been followed by three successive defeats, significantly damaging their hopes of being the number one seed in the AFC playoffs.

There are several reasons for their sudden decline. An extremely talented wide receiving corps has struggled to realise its potential, the running game has failed to get going and an elite defense has been hamstrung by edge rusher Bud Dupree's torn ACL.

Yet it is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who is under the most scrutiny after a string of unconvincing performances that have raised the question of whether they should look to replace the two-time Super Bowl winner.

Roethlisberger is expected to stick around for 2021 - the final year of his contract. Here we discuss whether it is wise for the Steelers to stick with the franchise legend with evidence indicating they may well fall short this year because of their quarterback's limitations.

Roethlisberger still a comeback king

There is some evidence in the raw numbers to support Roethlisberger remaining under center beyond this season, though it is not plentiful.

His 30 touchdown passes were the sixth most in the NFL entering Week 16 while only Ryan Tannehill of the Tennessee Titans has authored more fourth-quarter comebacks (4) than Roethlisberger (3).

Yet by several other measures, Roethlisberger is a quarterback in steep decline.

Fast but often inaccurate throws

While Roethlisberger has completed a respectable 65.3 percent of his passes, a deeper dive into the numbers hints at an inaccurate season.

According to the NFL's NextGen Stats, Roethlisberger is underperforming his expected completion percentage of 67.4 by 2.1 per cent.

He is getting the ball out very quickly, his 2.31 seconds is the fastest time from snap to throw in the NFL, but the problem is he is not always doing so accurately and rarely very far down the field.

Indeed, Roethlisberger's adjusted net yards per attempt figure of 6.13 was 23rd in the NFL going into the penultimate week of the season, and his struggles in that regard have come into even keener focus over the past three weeks.

A flat three weeks

In his first 11 games of the year, Roethlisberger adjusted net yards per attempt was 6.67. However, over the course of the past three weeks and the Steelers' successive defeats to the Washington Football Team, Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals, that figure has dropped to 4.31.

That change in fortune is reflected in the offense's overall production over the past three games. Pittsburgh's points per game tally has dropped from 28.8 in the first 11 games to 16.3, while the Steelers have averaged 264.7 yards per game during their losing streak compared to 346.5 beforehand.

They are significantly less efficient in terms of yards per play. The Steelers had been putting up 5.22 yards per play but that number has decreased to 4.32 in the previous three games, and their third-down conversion percentage has dropped from 46 to 26.8.

In short, Roethlisberger was delivering mediocre numbers to begin with and they are getting worse. He could argue, however, that his weapons on offense have not always helped his cause.

Supporting cast struggles

The Steelers have a dynamic group of young receivers, but their inconsistency in terms of catching the ball has plagued their offense all year.

Pittsburgh went into Week 16 leading the league in dropped passes with 37, Steelers receivers failing to handle 6.6 per cent of all passes thrown their way in 2020.

Roethlisberger has also received little help from the Steelers' running game, which approached Week 16 as the second-worst rushing attack in the NFL having put up just 88.9 yards per game on the ground.

Therein lies the case for Roethlisberger staying another year. With some improved focus at the catch point from his receivers and a remodelled arsenal at running back to boost the ground game, his potentially final season in the league in 2021 could end with a Lombardi Trophy.

Yet that is an expensive chance for the Steelers to take. They are forecast to be $21million over an assumed salary cap of $175m in 2021. Roethlisberger is due to earn $41.25m next year and, taking into account a dead cap charge of $22.25m, the Steelers would save $19m by parting ways with him.

A lack of avenues via which to immediately replace him may tie Pittsburgh's hands but, for an increasingly immobile quarterback who has been inaccurate and struggled to produce explosive plays downfield, Roethlisberger's price tag may prove too much to justify.

Mike Tomlin believes the Pittsburgh Steelers are "not a good football group right now" after a shock loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

After starting the NFL season 11-0, the Steelers slumped to a third straight loss, beaten 27-17 by rivals the Bengals on Monday.

Pittsburgh were on an 11-match winning streak over Cincinnati, but fell to defeat to leave the AFC North up for grabs.

Steelers head coach Tomlin lamented his side's performance at Paul Brown Stadium as Pittsburgh became the first team in NFL history to lose multiple games in which they entered with 11-plus wins and their opponents had four or fewer.

"Just not good enough for us," he told a news conference.

"The performance speaks for itself. We turned the ball over at the early portions of the game, you can't do that, you can't do that versus anybody. We gave them the short field three times in the first half or so and so it was an uphill battle the rest of the way because of that.

"They were able to hide the ball a little bit because of those circumstances. I thought they had a good plan. You've got to tip your cap to them, particularly with some of the quarterback design runs, they were able to keep us off balance and minimise some of the things that we were able to do on possession downs so I want to give them credit, but largely we've got a lot of work to do.

"We're not a good football group right now and so we understand the consequences that come with that, we're working on a short week, we've got to be better than what we've been and that's just the reality of it."

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger struggled, completing 20 of 38 passes for 170 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

Roethlisberger became the seventh quarterback in NFL history to reach 60,000 passing yards, but he was well below his best.

"It's not injury related. It just wasn't good enough, like all of us, me included. We've got to be better," Tomlin said about his QB.

Roethlisberger also said he needed to improve, telling reporters: "Their whole defense kept us off balance. I wasn't good enough."

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