Fallout from injuries to Big Ben and Drew Brees (and Eli's play)

Print

The Steelers didn't lose to the Seahawks on Sunday because of Ben Roethlisberger's elbow injury. They lost because Big Ben failed to move his disjointed offense before he left. They lost because after he was gone, their defense gave up second-half touchdowns in three drives, then couldn't stop the Seahawks from icing the game with a soul-crushing, 12-play, 5:34 drive. They lost in a manner that felt all too similar to so many moments in the Mike Tomlin era. His defense, his secondary, couldn't make a stop.

The Steelers will lose plenty more in 2019 following Monday's news that Roethlisberger needs season-ending elbow surgery, but how they compete in Tomlin's 13th season on the job could determine his future with the organization. The Rooney family's famous patience and Tomlin's ability to overcome setbacks will be tested like no other time in his tenure.

The shape of the 2019 NFL campaign didn't only change in Pittsburgh. The torn thumb ligament Drew Brees suffered in his throwing hand against the Rams on Sunday will keep the 40-year-old sidelined for at least six weeks, according to NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport, providing the Saints with an unwelcome preview of the post-Brees era in New Orleans. Eli Manning may have essentially benched himself after a rough outing against the Bills opened the door for rookie Daniel Jones to start for the 0-2 Giants as early as Week 3. (UPDATE: The Giants announced on Tuesday that Jones has been named their starting quarterback, replacing Manning.)

Roethlisberger (in his 16th NFL season), Brees (19th) and Manning (16th) have been NFL fixtures for years. This edition of the Debrief will focus on all the characters impacted by a Sunday of pillars falling all over the map, starting with the embattled Steelers coach:

Mike Tomlin, Steelers coach: First things first: No one should write an obituary for the 2019 Steelers just yet. The team second-year quarterback Mason Rudolph takes over isn't nearly as talented as the group Roethlisberger inherited as a rookie in Week 2 of 2004, but this isn't a hopeless roster. The Steelers have won games without Big Ben before, thanks to their organizational stability, talent and coaching. The NFL is far too unpredictable to assume the Steelers' veterans won't improve their play around Rudolph.

The challenge facing Tomlin, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner and defensive coordinator Keith Butler is to fix the numerous problems that existed for the Steelers independent of Roethlisberger, while Rudolph is integrated into the offense. The 2018 third-round pick made plays in his five drives at the helm on Sunday. Three of those drives ended in scores, and the first ended in an interception on a textbook third-and-long out throw on which the ball went through receiver Donte Moncrief's slippery hands, bounced off his helmet and was snared by Seahawks safety Bradley McDougald.

Moncrief didn't play after that, his benching highlighting just how diminished the skill-position group looks, outside of receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. Tight end Vance McDonald (nine catches for 78 yards and two touchdowns) and receivers James Washington (four catches for 74 yards) and Diontae Johnson (four catches for 42 yards) have yet to step up as reliable targets. Though pass protection held up, Roethlisberger didn't manage to complete a pass to a receiver until 5:49 left in the second quarter. The running game has gained a total of 113 yards in two weeks, and the Steelers were out-coached for a second straight week following Week 1's drubbing by the Pats.

Pittsburgh's talented defensive line swallowed the Seahawks whole for most of the first half, but the Seahawks adjusted with quick passing that exposed holes in the Steelers' secondary. Tomlin's young group made mental errors, and their linebackers (Mark Barron and rookie Devin Bush) were slow in coverage. When your secondary is undisciplined enough to force Seattle coaches Pete Carroll and Brian Schottenheimer to go pass-heavy in a close game, something is seriously wrong.

The continued mediocrity of the Steelers' defense is Tomlin's bailiwick for the next 14 games. His coaching background came in the secondary, and the Steelers' secondary is so often the team's biggest problem. With Roethlisberger out, Tomlin needs a carefully constructed defense at all three levels to carry the team. Through two weeks, Pittsburgh's defense has taken a step back from its usual M.O. of providing a slightly better than average, slightly disappointing performance.

Without Roethlisberger around to carry the team, perhaps the Rooney family will more seriously examine what Tomlin brings to the table. He is a terrific communicator and leader of the franchise with a long history of success (a 125-68-1 record and a Super Bowl ring), factors that can't be easily replaced. He hasn't coached a single losing season in Pittsburgh and has proven remarkably capable of climbing out of ditches. Finishing with an 8-6 record with Rudolph as the starter would seemingly be enough to quell any job-security questions, even if the Steelers missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season. That will take vast improvement by Tomlin's defense, not to mention the rise of a new Steelers quarterback ...

Mason Rudolph and Ben Roethlisberger, Steelers quarterbacks: Roethlisberger's future will likely be up to Roethlisberger. The 37-year-old just signed a contract extension in April that included a $37.5 million signing bonus and a $12.5 million roster bonus on the third day of the 2020 league year. While he's publicly considered retirement before, Roethlisberger confirmed in a statement Monday that he plans to honor that contract, adding that he's "completely determined to battle through this challenge and come back stronger than ever next season," and that he has "a lot left to give." At any rate, the Steelers would take a huge salary-cap penalty to move on from the future Hall of Famer (per Over The Cap, they'd be on the hook for $25 million in dead money next season).

Rudolph's performance this season will be more about securing Tomlin's future with the team, not to mention Rudolph's next contract, wherever that may be. After a typically slow rookie training camp in 2018, the Oklahoma State product impressed Steelers brass enough to earn the backup job in his second preseason with 8.6 yards per attempt, four touchdowns and one interception. That led to Josh Dobbs being traded to the Jaguars just last week. Rudolph showed off his strong arm, some improvisational skills and an ability to go through his reads against the Seahawks, finishing with 12 completions in 19 attempts for 112 yards, two scores and a pick.

"He wants to be the show," Steelers guard Ramon Foster told NFL Network's Tom Pelissero after the game. "You see it in his face. Look at him. You see him. That guy is stone cold, man. He came from an offense that said that he's a playmaker. He shows that he's a playmaker, and he wants to be that. ... We didn't shrink the playbook at all. That little (flea-flicker) we had, I don't know if he even has done that at practice this week, and he did it in a major way. ... He's a capable guy."

Guard David DeCastro went a step further, telling reporters he was "really, really, really" impressed with Rudolph's effort on Sunday.

Playing that well week after week once defenses game-plan for Rudolph will be more difficult, but the Steelers weren't caught flat-footed by this injury. They've invested draft capital in life after Ben, and they have a strong offensive line with which to protect Rudolph. Conspiracy theorists might even look at the enthusiasm of those quotes from his linemen and wonder if the team is excited to win without Roethlisberger, although that narrative feels as lazy as the popular summer fairy tale that the Steelers' offense would be better without Antonio Brown.

This is a diminished Steelers squad. Even though the situation isn't hopeless, with Roethlisberger out, the NFL's most rugged-looking division before the season suddenly doesn't look as tough ...

The AFC North: The front-running Ravens are already two games up on the Steelers and Bengals. To get caught from behind by a Mason Rudolph-led team would be a disaster for the defending division champions. Browns fans also don't need to be reminded that the Browns have never beaten a Roethlisberger-led team in Pittsburgh, with the Steelers going 23-2-1 in all of Roethlisberger's appearances against the Browns. The path to the playoffs -- whether through the division title or the wild card -- is a lot easier for Cleveland if the Browns can finish ahead of the Steelers.

Sean Payton, Saints coach, and Teddy Bridgewater, Saints quarterback: Unlike Mike Tomlin, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton doesn't need to worry about his future following a serious injury to his franchise quarterback. Hours before Sunday's NFC Championship Game rematch between the Saints and Rams in Los Angeles on Sunday, word emerged of Payton's five-year contract extension with the Saints. That guaranteed there would be life for Payton after Drew Brees in New Orleans in what will be a fascinating test of Payton's offensive genius. No one expected that test to start Sunday.

The Saints recorded their fourth-lowest scoring game and the fourth-lowest yardage total since the Payton-Brees era began in 2006 during their 27-9 loss to the Rams. Putting that all on backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater doesn't feel right, considering Brees' interception in the first drive and the offense's sloppy first half against the Texans in Week 1. Still, it was alarming to see Payton's inability to adjust in nine drives with Bridgewater at the helm. The team had just two drives all day that included more than two first downs.

In Michael Thomas, Alvin Kamara, Ted Ginn and a strong offensive line, Payton and Bridgewater should have enough tools to create yards. But it hasn't yet happened for them in a very limited sample size together. Bridgewater couldn't find open receivers down the field against the Rams, often taking checkdowns and missing a few key throws. This outing, combined with Bridgewater's blah preseason and rough Week 17 start last year, has the Taysom Hill truthers out in full force. Don't expect Sean Payton to go that route any time soon.

The Saints have invested time, draft capital (the third-round pick New Orleans sent to the Jets for Bridgewater in August of 2018) and money ($7.5 million in 2019 base salary on his current one-year deal) in Bridgewater because Payton believes in him. Bridgewater hasn't translated his reportedly strong practice play to the field well enough, although his performances to date have come with mitigating circumstances. The Saints' offensive linemen were thrashed in the Week 17 start a year ago, while Bridgewater played with backups. I want to see what Bridgewater looks like after getting a full week of preparation as the team's starter, with Payton game-planning around his strengths. At his best in Minnesota, the 2014 first-round pick was an effective point guard who could create extra time in the pocket with his movement and made good decisions. That skill set should be perfect for Payton's offense. Turning 27 in November, he's a little more than 2 years younger than Hill and has more long-term upside.

The Saints' schedule doesn't do Payton any favors. They will remain on the West Coast this week before facing the 2-0 Seahawks in Seattle, then return home to go against a budding Cowboys juggernaut. The Bucs, Jaguars, Bears and Cardinals follow before a Week 9 bye. Bridgewater will presumably be the starter for all of those games, although it's fair to expect a heavy dose of Hill in the red zone.

The devastating knee injury that altered Bridgewater's career, ending his tenure as the Vikings' starter after 29 starts, happened just over three years ago, even if it feels like a lifetime. I've seen too much analysis that assumes Bridgewater can't grow, that a 26-year-old with 55 regular-season pass attempts in the last three-plus seasons is somehow a finished product. Bridgewater smartly turned down overtures this offseason from the Dolphins to take over the starting job in Miami, and this opportunity provides him with an incredible chance to show he still belongs in the NFL as a starter. It's also Payton's chance to reimagine his offensive bona fides, to show he's the type of generational coach who can create big plays no matter the quarterback, like Andy Reid or Joe Gibbs. A 4-2 or 3-3 record over the next six weeks is a fair hope for this duo, and either mark would keep the Saints in the playoff hunt. Based on Payton's track record, I'd expect it.

The rest of the NFC South: It's safe to say Brees' injury got the attention of the rest of the division. Carolina's 0-2 start doesn't feel quite as hopeless as it did Thursday night, and the Falcons' win on Sunday night gives them a chance to grab hold of the division lead before Brees gets back. The Bucs were given the best luck of the group, as their trip to New Orleans in Week 5 will come against Bridgewater. (Then again, the Bucs are 4-4 against Brees in the last four years.) Tampa's revived defense may also face an untested quarterback in Week 3 ...

Daniel Jones, Giants quarterback: It's time. I wrote in late August that Jones' sterling preseason after being drafted sixth overall meant that Eli Manning could -- and should -- be benched the minute the Giants fell two games under .500. That officially happened on Sunday, when Manning completed 26 of 45 passes for 250 yards, one score and two picks in a 28-14 loss to the Bills, and Giants coach Pat Shurmur seemed to open the door on a quarterback change during Monday's press conference. Shurmur, 5-13 since taking the job last season, is fighting for his coaching life, and it wouldn't be a surprise if he's more eager to make the change than his front office, which has a longer history with Manning.

One truism I've learned over the years: If a coach is sticking with a veteran quarterback, he almost always makes it clear Monday. When he wants to change to the young guy, he usually keeps it vague before talking to all the appropriate parties. Benching a franchise legend involves complications, like getting ownership involved and having a media strategy, something that former Giants coach Ben McAdoo learned the hard way a few years back. But I'd expect Jones to start after Shurmur checks those boxes, very possibly this week. That would leave Eli's all-time record as Giants starter at 116-116.

Giants fans love to point out that Manning is hardly their only problem, which is true. Daniel Jones won't save one of football's most talent-poor defenses. But he will make Big Blue's offense far more watchable, and it's fun to imagine Jones throwing to running back Saquon Barkley and tight end Evan Engram every week. The Daniel Dimes truly era started the minute he was taken with the No. 6 overall pick; everything that's taken place since has been part of an awkward stage of denial.

UPDATE: The Giants announced on Tuesday that Jones has been named their starting quarterback, replacing Manning.

UNSTOPPABLE PERFORMANCE: Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs QB

Don't take Mahomes' early prime for granted. There is no good NFL comparison for him, because the third-year pro and 2018 NFL MVP is accomplishing feats on a weekly basis that we've never seen anyone accomplish before. Dan Marino, who threw for 9,221 yards and 78 touchdown passes in Years 2 and 3 of his career, comes the closest, but even Dan Marino couldn't have pulled off a 278-yard, four-touchdown quarter like Mahomes did in Oakland on Sunday. The performance was a delight for the football senses; it felt like the Chiefs and Raiders were so exhausted from the spectacle that they stopped scoring altogether afterward.

Mahomes is showing an improved ability to buy time to throw by escaping to safe tracts of land. Chiefs coach Andy Reid is even building some of Mahomes' unpredictable movement into the playbook, purposefully moving the pocket to the left or right in unorthodox fashion during his dropback. This only highlights the ability of the Chiefs and Mahomes to space the field, which is unmatched in today's NFL, not to mention yesterday's NFL.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Mahomes' defensive teammate, Chris Jones, was another candidate in this category, for almost single-handedly ruining the Raiders' offensive gameplan. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson also deserves credit for how routine and clinical he made his 300-yard, three-TD effort against Pittsburgh's scrambling defense look. It's a great sign that Wilson could be so efficient without even needing to lean on his usual theatrics.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop