Steelers offensive line is not as bad in pass protection as you might think

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

The sum of the whole of the Steelers' offensive line isn't going to draw breathless applause, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is on pace to take 64 sacks this season - that's as much on him as it is his offensive line, that's providing adequate protection.

The issue surrounding the Steelers is centered around the offensive line.

Right?

Can't protect the quarterback, don't give him enough time. If Ben Roethlisberger had (insert quarterback's name here)'s offensive line, he'd put up huge numbers too. (Insert another quarterback's name) has all the time in the world, of course he's going to pick defenses apart.

Ben Roethlisberger is a rugged and large quarterback. He doesn't have Tom Brady's pretty-boy looks or Peyton Manning's flawless mechanics. He doesn't have the career numbers as either of those first-ballot Hall of Fame passers, and he never will.

What Roethlisberger does best is put his team in a position to win games.

Ya think Roethlisberger doesn't know that? He's mentioned it many times in interviews - he loves how demoralized an opponent looks after he breaks them down on the move and hits a receiver for a first down on third and long. He competes as hard as anyone, and he has limitless confidence in himself as the proverbial football player, not just a quarterback.

Fans love him for it. But that mentality represents the fleas that come with the dog. Fans and media are quick to blame the Steelers' offensive line for the pressure taken by Roethlisberger. CBS analyst Phil Simms did it just last week in Pittsburgh's loss to New England.

This all depends on which side of Roethlisberger you want to analyze.

The issue here is sacks. His protection is not as bad as it's made out to be. It's not great, but it's not terrible.

According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger is under pressure on 36.3 percent of his dropbacks, which is the 16th highest mark in the NFL among the 30 quarterbacks who have taken at least half of their team's snaps. He's being sacked on 24.8 percent of those pressured dropbacks, though, which is the second-highest percentage in the league, behind Miami's Ryan Tannehill.

Based on those numbers, the argument can be made Roethlisberger is not getting as much pressure as many will indicate. He's just being sacked often when he does. That can be put on Roethlisberger as much as on the offensive line. Add in another PFF stat, Roethlisberger has, on average, 2.74 seconds to throw, run or take a sack - another number that's roughly average among his peers.

His 4.37 seconds time-to-sack, however, is the fourth-longest in the NFL. Even if he's fighting to stay upright for seven seconds before going down, he still doesn't get pressured any more than the average quarterback does on a per-dropback basis.

Paint a picture with numbers. What you'll see, based on those stats, is a quarterback who scrambles around, trying to get the ball down the field - which is Roethlisberger's legacy, and much of the reason this team has been very successful in his career. With that style, though, he's going to get sacked. And he is.

An offensive line of Jonathan Ogden, Alan Faneca, Mike Webster, Larry Allen and Anthony Munoz isn't going to protect a quarterback for significantly longer than five seconds on a play. Even if it did, Roethlisberger's style is akin to Maverick in Top Gun, when he grabs Sundown by the straps over his shoulder and yells, "I'll fire when I'm god damn good and ready! YOU GOT THAT??"

It's not as much waiting for the receivers to get open. It's not that he's doing it to avoid the pass rush.

It's very much like what he did in the Steelers' 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff game against Indianapolis, when Nick Harper was barreling down on him after recovering Jerome Bettis's infamous fumble. He's baiting the defense into getting closer to him so he can counter with his best shot.

Roethlisberger got Harper down after he let Harper come to him. Roethlisberger has limitless confidence in his ability to buy time for a receiver to not just get open, but get open deeper down the field. He's not going to take a three-yard completion in lieu of a 20-yard attempt; that's just not his style.

His style is letting the defense come to him, and hit the opening they leave exposed by watching him, and not the receivers down the field.

And we love him so much for it, we blame the fact Roethlisberger is on pace to be sacked an appalling 64 times this year on the eight different offensive linemen who have protected Ben's butt, and not the one constant of the entire equation - Ben himself.

Or we could blame Todd Haley, and the entire scheme of the offense. Considering Roethlisberger had 3.62 seconds until he was sacked in 2010 - three-quarters of a second less than his average in 2013 - it's hard to make the argument the play of the offensive line has somehow deteriorated, or even that Haley's offense has not improved this team's general protection. It just hasn't cured Roethlisberger of his desire to make big plays.

And why should it? He still makes those plays. He got sacked then, he's getting sacked now, and Buffalo, one of the better sacking defenses in the league, can show up and get three sacks Sunday.

Those fleas aren't going to get killed off by the collar of an offensive coordinator. Absolutely, having a Hall of Fame-level of protection will help him more than hurt him, but it's not entirely accurate to suggest better protection will help him. He has average protection right now, and he produces at a high level, along with a high level of sacks. A Ferrari discharges exhaust when its engine gets revved. Roethlisberger will keep revving, exhaust be damned.

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