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Seahawks 28, Steelers 26: Ben Roethlisberger out for the season. Now what?

How’s this for a punch to the gut?

The Steelers fell to 0-2 with Sunday’s 28-26 loss to the Seahawks at Heinz Field, but the news on Monday was a lot harder to swallow.

Ben Roethlisberger will have surgery on his right elbow and is out for the season.

It’s not like the Steelers haven’t started 0-2 before. Heck, they started 0-4 in 2013 and damn near made the playoffs.

But Roethlisberger missing pretty much the entire season? That’s something this organization hasn’t dealt with since it drafted the quarterback in 2004.

Roethlisberger had never missed more than four games in a season despite taking quite a licking in his career. He’s been the Stretch Armstrong of quarterbacks. In Week 3 of the 2015 season at St. Louis he rode off on a cart, a scene that usually signals the end of someone’s season.

He missed only four games.

Every once in a while throughout Roethlisberger’s career Steelers fans have had to hold their breath when he’s been shaken up, but he’s almost always stayed in the game.

Roethlisberger clutched his elbow after throwing a pass during the first half of Sunday’s game, but he’s done things like that before and it almost never turns out to be anything serious. For all his durability, he has been a little overly demonstrative when it comes to certain bumps and bruises.

However, this might not be something that happened during the game. According to Dianna Russini of ESPN, teammates said that Roethlisberger had felt discomfort in his elbow all week.

This could be a wear-and-tear kind of thing. Nothing that’s happened on the field has directly knocked Roethlisberger out for a season, but then again Father Time doesn’t wear shoulder pads. And it could be that this all-powerful dad that has dictated the length of so many football careers is starting to clear his throat to tell the 37-year-old Roethlisberger that it’s time to get ready for bed.

In the hours between the news that Roethlisberger was getting an MRI and the news that he’s out for the season, history suggested that at worst Roethlisberger would miss a few games. Mason Rudolph, who the Steelers drafted in the third round in 2018, threw two touchdown passes Sunday. That’s 25 percent of the number that Landry Jones threw in his five years as Roethlisberger’s backup.

Figuring that Rudolph could be a capable caretaker of the offense until Roethlisberger returned, it was easy to put up a brave front and say that Roethlisberger’s injury wasn’t the Steelers’ biggest problem, that it was the defense.

This defense might keep the Steelers out of the playoffs regardless of who’s playing quarterback. It has allowed Tom Brady and Russell Wilson to complete a combined 53 passes on 71 attempts for 641 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions. It has allowed the fourth-most yards per game in the league through two weeks.

Still, the Roethlisberger news has kind of dwarfed the Steelers’ defensive woes.

Life without Roethlisberger is the new reality, but it’s one that the Steelers have tried to prepare for. The 2018 quarterback draft class could turn out to be a bountiful one. Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson all were chosen in the first round.

Despite passing for an NCAA-leading 4,904 yards at Oklahoma State in 2017, Rudolph wasn’t regarded in the same tier as the first-round quarterbacks and he somehow lasted until the third round.

The Big 12 isn’t exactly known for its defense, and until recently quarterbacks drafted from that conference haven’t fared all that well in the NFL. Among Big 12 quarterbacks who have been drafted, according to Pro Football Reference, Ryan Tannehill is the all-time leader in passing yards and passing touchdowns. That’s not setting the bar very high.

Patrick Mahomes from Texas Tech and Baker Mayfield from Oklahoma are changing that trend. Rudolph wasn’t active for any games in his rookie season. Wouldn’t it be nice if he benefited from watching and learning the same way that Mahomes did?

Of course it would be a lot to ask of Rudolph to play the way Mahomes has. It’s still too early to tell just what the Steelers have in Rudolph, but the mystery of it all could be an emotional buoy in the wake of the Roethlisberger news.

Sure, the Steelers could buckle without their franchise quarterback and go 2-14. On the other hand, Rudolph could play well enough to create a quarterback controversy in 2020. We don’t know.

The first thing the Steelers need to do to help their young quarterback is stop giving Donte Moncrief a uniform. Rudolph threw an interception before completing his first career pass, but the pick wasn’t his fault. Moncrief, who dropped pass after pass at New England in Week 1, apparently decided to give volleyball a try and hit Rudolph’s pass into the air and into the arms of the Seahawks’ Bradley McDougald at the Steelers’ 40. That led to a Seahawks’ touchdown and a 14-10 Seattle lead in the third quarter.

In the first half, the Steelers sacked Wilson four times, forced a fumble and took a 10-7 lead into the locker room. The defense even forced a three-and-out to start the second half, but it was all downhill after Moncrief butchered the second pass of Rudolph’s career.

It wasn’t Moncrief’s fault, of course, that the Seahawks scored touchdowns on their next three possessions. The Steelers defense made some strides in the first half, but it still can be picked apart by quarterbacks like Brady and Wilson.

Will Dissly, a tight end whose name is only familiar to fantasy football junkies, caught two touchdown passes from Wilson. Next week at San Francisco, the Steelers defense has to try to stop George Kittle, who set a record last season for tight ends with 1,377 receiving yards.

As if falling to 0-2 and losing Roethlisberger isn’t daunting enough, the Steelers go to a time zone next week where they’ve won only once during Mike Tomlin’s tenure as head coach. Then in Week 4, they host the 0-2 Bengals.

Considering the Steelers started 0-4 in 2013 yet still would have made the playoffs if Ryan Succop could have kicked a damn field goal, maybe we can convince ourselves that the playoffs remain a possibility as long as the Steelers can win one of their next two games.

We can’t really use recent history as a guide, however, because any recent Steelers history involves having Roethlisberger at quarterback.

All we really know right now is that the Steelers’ defense needs to improve. As far as the quarterback situation goes, we’re heading into a big unknown.

Follow Mike Batista @Steel_Tweets.

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