Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t kidding when he said he planned to disappear after retirement.
Maybe, but the specter of the player who defined the Pittsburgh Steelers for nearly two decades looms over the franchise in 2022.
Keeping track of a likely future Hall of Famer is a difficult task. The Steelers signed Mitch Trubisky as a free agent and drafted Kenny Pickett in the first round, leading the former University of Pittsburgh star to a rebellious 2021 Heisman Trophy campaign.
Trubisky, who spent four tumultuous years in Chicago before serving as Josh Allen’s backup in Buffalo last fall, is trying not so much to replace Roethlisberger as to simply rebuild his career.
“All I can do is come in here and be myself, Mitch Trubisky,” he said when training camp began. “I came here to compete and help manage these guys and do what I do on the field.”
Trubisky will likely get the first snap when the Steelers open at Cincinnati on Sept. 11, although Pickett made a big push during the preseason. Both defenders have the ability to make plays with both their feet and their hands, a size the offense lacked in the later years of Roethlisberger’s career.
Whoever the quarterback is needs to have the ability to make something out of nothing while playing behind a retooled offensive line, which can take a long time to figure out.
“We’re still building in the right direction,” Trubisky said. “So we must continue.”
Trubisky will need it if he wants to hang on to the job for a while. Considered the most NFL-ready cornerback in a relatively weak draft class, Pickett has come through his first training camp impressing with both his maturity and his playmaking ability.
Coach Mike Tomlin and offensive coordinator Matt Canada have been slow to bring Pickett up, though he’s seemingly passed every test thrown at him, including engineering scores in rushing situations against Detroit and Jacksonville.
“That’s probably who he is,” Tomlin said. “I know he did it next door (at Pitt College). He must have done it in high school. He probably did it in the minor leagues. Some things people are born with.”
If Pickett continues to display the “it” factor, Trubisky’s grasp of the starting job — should he be the pick — could be tenuous at best.
In the offseason, Tomlin seemed almost gleeful as he talked about a problem he never had to worry about during his first 15 years on the job, when all he had to do was jot down Roethlisberger’s familiar No. 7 atop the depth chart instead of worrying about this.
“You’re excited about the anxiety associated with this uncertainty,” he said.
There are expected to be many over the next four months as the Steelers attempt to forge a new identity while trying to live up to the same tough expectations.
“There’s a lot more pressure on (the quarterbacks) now, but the defense and other parts of the offense have to step up to make it easy,” Pro Bowl quarterback Cam Hayward said.
The Steelers made a splash in the offseason by hiring former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores as a senior defensive assistant just weeks after Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL over alleged racist hiring practices.
The legal battle between Flores and the league is still in its early stages. Flores is trying to focus on the task at hand, which is to help Tomlin and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin assemble a defense that will be tougher than last season when the Steelers finished last.
Flores quickly won over his new charges with his intensity and military-like attention to detail.
“He has so much knowledge and understanding of the game that other coaches might not have,” midfielder Rob Spillane said. “And it is not by chance that you become the head coach in this league. He has done many things throughout his career to get to where he is today. … I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with him.”
Naji Harris set a franchise rookie record with 1,200 yards last season. The 24-year-old, who also caught 73 passes a year ago, wouldn’t mind taking on an even bigger workload in 2022.
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Harris has already taken on a heavier load in the locker room, showing signs of helping fill the leadership void left by Roethlisberger’s retirement.
“It’s just him, it’s in his character,” Tomlin said. Therefore, it is a natural act for him.”
All-Pro outside linebacker TJ Watt is coming off a season in which he signed a big new contract and then backed it up by winning his first NFL Defensive Player of the Year award after setting a league record with 22 1/2 sacks.
Watt is building a Hall of Fame resume and is in his prime. However, he knows there is only one way to preserve his legacy, playing for a team that has six Lombardi trophies adorning the display case the players walk past almost every day.
“We have to win the Super Bowl,” Watt said.
A standard in Pittsburgh that never changes, no matter the quarterback.
“I don’t think I have to remind them (of it),” Tomlin said, “but I do anyway.”