National Football League

Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers must fix big problems ahead of 2021 NFL season

February 17

It should be a marquee matchup, but is it?

The Dallas Cowboys face the Pittsburgh Steelers to kick off the 2021 NFL preseason with the annual Hall of Fame game in August. But before they do, they must answer some important questions.

Dallas and Pittsburgh are two of the league's most storied franchises, but their most recent seasons came to abrupt ends.

The Steelers, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger leading the way, started on an 11-0 tear before posting a losing record in their final five games (1-4). 

Meanwhile, Dallas quarterback Dak Prescott lit up the league through the air (1,856 passing yards and nine touchdowns) before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 5 against the New York Giants.

Now, with the 2021 offseason upon us, which team has the most to figure out in order to have a successful campaign next season?

On Tuesday's edition of "Speak For Yourself," Marcellus Wiley said Pittsburgh has a problem at the QB position — one the current starter cannot solve.

"The last five games they were 1-4. ... [Ben Roethlisberger's] completion percentage went down, yards per attempt went down, touchdown-interception ratio got ugly, passer rating dropped down to 83. So my tour guide is not so good."

The 38-year-old Roethlisberger, after being sidelined in 2019 because of a right elbow injury, started the 2020 season on a tear, throwing for 25 touchdowns and six interceptions through the first 11 weeks to help Pittsburgh to its perfect start. 

He then cooled off significantly in Weeks 12-15, tossing eight touchdown passes and four picks, posting a passer rating of 80.1 and completing just 60.3% of his passes. The Steelers went 1-3 with him as a starter down the stretch (he sat out Week 16 after Pittsburgh clinched the division).

Roethlisberger finished with his fewest passing yards (3,803) since 2012, and for the second straight season, the Steelers did not have a 1,000-yard receiver after having one on the roster in six consecutive seasons from 2013 to '18.

Following Pittsburgh's early exit in the wild-card round of the playoffs, questions swirled about whether Roethlisberger would return for the final year of his contract.

As of Wednesday morning, his status with the team seemed to be more in flux than ever. 

Roethlisberger has a $41 million cap hit for 2021, and though he is willing to take a pay cut, the Steelers are likely to lose more pieces, including their top wide receiver, JuJu Smith-Schuster.

Their starting center, Maurkice Pouncey, has already announced his retirement.

Pittsburgh has the No. 24 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, and FOX Sports betting analyst Jason McIntyre has the club picking up an offensive tackle, presumably to help the veteran Roethlisberger.

Wiley also pointed out that the Steelers play in the highly competitive AFC North, and the division's four teams combined for a 38-25-1 record in 2020, good for the best win percentage in the NFL.

Still, even with loads of roster uncertainty in Pittsburgh, Wiley's co-host, Emmanuel Acho, said Tuesday that the Cowboys have more unknowns than the Steelers heading into next season.

"They have question marks everywhere, as I see it. Cowboys have a question mark as their head coach. Is [Mike McCarthy] a quality head coach? ... My second question is around the star players. ... Only Amari Cooper played all the games and played well last year. ... And now, I also have questions about the quarterback position.

"The difference between the Cowboys and Steelers is on the first day of the offseason this year, the Cowboys don't have a quarterback. Dak Prescott technically would have to be tagged again. Ben Roethlisberger is still under contract."

Emmanuel Acho: Cowboys face unknowns in offseason; Will Dallas franchise tag Dak Prescott? | SPEAK FOR YOURSELF

What's next for Dallas at quarterback might be not only the biggest question for the Cowboys but also the biggest question in the entire NFL.

Prescott's future is still up in the air. The franchise could place a second franchise tag on him or sign him to a long-term deal. Either way, money is going to be an issue, as the Cowboys are expected to have only around $18 million in cap space in 2021.

Dallas is known for paying its players, and the Cowboys currently have hefty contracts on both sides of the ball, including for running back Ezekiel Elliott (six years, $90 million), receiver Amari Cooper (five years, $100 million) and defensive end Demarcus Lawrence (five years, $105 million).

Those contracts aren't exactly panning out so far.

In 2020, Elliott had career lows in rushing yards (979), rushing yards per attempt (4.0), rushing yards per game (65.3) and rushing attempts per game (16.3). He also tied his career high with six fumbles.

On the defensive side of the ball, the Cowboys were 26th in the NFL in QB hits (74) and 27th in tackles for loss (54). Dallas had the 31st-ranked rushing defense, allowing 158.8 rushing yards per game, and the 28th-ranked scoring defense, allowing 29.6 points per game.

How the franchise will fix those dastardly defensive numbers remains to be seen.

While some high-paid players didn't quite live up to expectations last season, neither did McCarthy in his first year on the sideline.

After a disappointing 6-10 finish, McCarthy has a losing record his past three seasons (17-26-1), and he has a 12-22-1 career record outside of his time with Hall of Fame-caliber QBs in Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre.

As for what's to come in the immediate future, the Cowboys have the 10th pick in the NFL draft, and McCarthy & Co. will have to decide what to address first.

The Steelers will pick at No. 24.

One thing is for certain: Both Pittsburgh and Dallas are already on the clock.

Check out Marcellus and Emmanuel's entire conversation below:


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