With summer roughly at its midpoint, the anticipation for the latest release in the Madden Football series (Madden 25 will hit store Aug. 27) intensifies.
For those who are unfamiliar with the Madden franchise, players and teams are rated on a scale of 1-99 points. Teams receive a rating based on the overall composition of their players' ratings. The game rates each player's ability in every position on the football field.
The topics which players get rated vary from speed, to throwing power, to zone coverage ability, to the ability to beat press coverage, to run blocking and many other measurable statistics. Based on those ratings the system then takes into account the skills that are most valuable to the players' position and that computes an overall rating for that player at a position. Sometimes players can be rated as a better player at a position that is not naturally theirs. However this does not necessarily require for a switch to be made in all circumstances.
As the season goes on, EA Sports continues to update the rosters by making any free agent adjustments for players that may have been signed or released. They also make adjustments to the players' various skill ratings based on their week-to-week play. Whereas the major players won't see a significant drop in their rating for a really bad game, players that aren't rated too high will see increases in their ratings if they consistently prove to be effective.
For example, in 2008 when Ben Roethlisberger threw seven interceptions in a span of two weeks, he did not drop too much in his overall rating because those low performances were considered to be anomalies from his normal level of play. On the other hand, Antonio Brown's rating has jumped from the lower 70's to the mid 80's in his first few seasons. Player updates are made throughout the season but are final after the Super Bowl is played and those are the rosters for the team until the new game comes out.
The Steelers' overall rating natural dropped significantly this season, down to 82, but they still were an effective team. Unlike most Madden users, I only use my beloved Steelers. I have played Madden every year since 2001. Although I do not participate in the official tournaments and am not one to post my games on YouTube, I have had a lot of success playing online against ranked players and in local tournaments hosted as fundraisers by local organizations.
My overall strategy is to find a system of plays under Tomlin's playbooks that work best for the team and keep my opponent off balance so I can read their defense and exploit their weaknesses. Occasionally I have had to use other teams when friends and opponents complain that I use the Steelers too much and can only win with them. Other than those rare occurrences I only use Pittsburgh and I love hearing opponents exclaim their disbelief at certain players' abilities.
I've heard "Sanders isn't that fast," and "Timmons can catch Arian Foster in the flat," and my favorite, "Polamalu DOESN'T DO THAT!"
This year the Steelers still have the speed on offense and a quarterback in Roethlisberger who can sling the ball and get out of the pocket to make them effective in scoring points.
Ben Roethlisberger: Throwing Power: 94; Throwing Accuracy: Short 91, Medium 86, Long 78; Overall: 93
Roethlisberger is still a viable threat at quarterback despite his bad interceptions that doomed the team's season against the Cowboys and the Bengals. It helps to have a high awareness rating of 92 that compliments his size and makes it harder to sack him for opponents. Madden got it right on the ratings that affect his arm. Ben has the power to hit bombs deep to receivers and throws a great bullet pass when the defense gives him straight lane to a receiver. His downside is that occasionally he will overthrow receivers who beat the coverage and could score if the throw was accurate. Seemingly mimicking his occasional miss of Wallace on a deep ball, the game doesn't make his deep pass a perfect weapon but it can drive your opponents crazy if you know how to use it properly. As long as you learn to recognize which defenses your opponents are in, Roethlisberger can lead your offense very efficiently and keep your opponent off balance with the team's weapons.
Backup Quarterbacks: Charlie Batch and Byron Leftwich
Rule No. 1: Don't let Ben get hurt. Once he's gone you lose the deep ball as a viable threat and any semi-intelligent opponent will press the receivers and blitz more in order to keep your short passing game in check. Although Batch and Leftwich can heave the ball a little bit, it is not nearly accurate enough and can often lead to turnovers. Plus they both move about as slow as Casey Hampton in a 100 yard sprint, so any attempt to take advantage of a defense not spying your quarterback is a moot point.
Rashard Mendenhall: Speed: 86; Trucking: 88; Overall: 80
Like the Steelers, I was let down that Mendenhall never developed into a premier NFL talent who could control games for them. His failure to dominate made him a very serviceable back over the years, but not enough to make people fear your running game on a consistent basis. He doesn't often break tackles and is really more of a vessel to carry the ball and rely on your offensive line to provide openings. Nothing about his play really sticks out from the other options in the backfield as his acceleration is as high as Isaac Redman's at 87 and the most distinguishable skill that favors him over the other choices is his awareness, which is stuck at a 78. Good as a spell option, but I start Dwyer in most games.
Jonathan Dwyer: Speed: 88; Trucking: 95; Overall: 76
Yes you just read right, Madden rates Dwyer's speed to be higher than Mendenhall's. Mendenhall's acceleration is higher, but that only comes into play in open space. Whereas Dwyer won't make 60 yard touchdown runs as much as Mendenhall, the drop-off is not significant enough to outweigh the other advantages Dwyer provides to the ground game. Dwyer's strength is equal to Mendenhall's and his agility is slightly better than Mendenhall's. His biggest asset is his ability to break tackles which can make the difference between 2nd and 8, and 2nd and 4, which makes the defense that much more paranoid every time you line up in a passing formation that you may hand it off to the guy who can truck a corner. But the Steelers' best options at running back make you really miss Willie Parker. I could control entire games with his speed and make the average dive or off-tackle run into an explosive 80 yard touchdown. Those were the days.
Backups: Isaac Redman and Baron Batch
Redman is still a solid option at running back for the Steelers as his overall is only one point shy of Dwyer's. However the backup running back is usually a spot most teams have a better speed option for the passing game or for a screen. The Steelers did have that option with Rainey, but because of his release he is no longer on the roster. Many people were disappointed, but I had to struggle not to pout like a 5 year old who lost his favorite Batman action figure. I tormented people with his blazing speed out of the backfield on 3rd downs and with short passing routes. His speed made him a constant threat in the deep passing game and on special teams. Now we just have Baron Batch, who can run slower than Dwyer, has the least strength of the group and the worst awareness and acceleration of the group. Words cannot express how much I hope that Le'Veon Bell can blow up in this position for the team so that I can have a player to torture the many users that come out in dime packages their base defense against the Steelers.
Heath Miller: Catch: 90; Run Block Strength: 72; Overall: 89
Heath Miller in Madden is as excellent and reliable as the Heath Miller in real life. Occasionally he will drop a pass after a huge hit, but he blocks well, goes up for contested passes and is usually a solid option for the passing scheme. His route running is a ## which makes him a threat to torch undisciplined corners on outs, ins and corner routes. He is also a reliable receiver out of the shotgun when lined up as a wide receiver in order to beat a cornerback on a short 3rd down route. Also with a 77 acceleration and a 75 speed, Miller becomes a threat to score when defenses miss a tackle and don't have a defensive back playing a deep zone. I do miss the crowd chanting "HEEEEAAATH" from Madden 12, but the game still does capture his blue-collar reliable nature of play.
Backups: Leonard Pope and David Paulson.
First major adjustment to be made that can shake up defenses is to switch Pope and Paulson on the depth chart. Paulson's overall is considerably less because of Pope's size awareness. However the main skill you need from a second tight end in this offense is his ability to catch the ball. Paulson's catch is a 82 and comes in handy more than Pope's 71. I can't tell you how many easy wide open lobs to the end zone Pope dropped before I saw this for a change. Paulson is also an 82 at his speed (highest among Steeler TE's) and a 74 acceleration, making him a decent option to get yards after the catch if there is a missed tackle.
Left Tackle: Max Starks: Overall: 75
Left Guard: Ramon Foster: Overall: 82
Center: Maurkice Pouncey: Overall: 88
Right Guard: David DeCastro: Overall: 79
Right Tackle: Marcus Gilbert: Overall: 78
Pouncey is of course your anchor here. The Steelers offensive line provides enough protection off the edges to stave off edge blitzers unless the defense sends extra corners on the rush. Although they cannot control a loaded defensive front, if opponents respect your passing game enough the line will get you 100 yard rushing games. I'll go over strategy in a bit but the point of this offensive line is that they can get the job done when you catch the defense off balance. One of the most notable upgrades was the unit's pass protection. For the past two Madden installations, play action was almost not an option because the Steelers offensive line would let in blitzers before Roethlisberger could even setup to look at receivers. This year the line gives you a solid four seconds on average to make a decision once quarterback has set his feet. Hopefully their production next year leads to upgrades that make them a dominant unit against most defensive unit.
Mike Wallace: Speed: 98; Catch: 86; Spectacular Catch: 92; Route Running: 84; Overall: 87.
Sure he didn't become the ultimate all-star of a receiver and failed to shine after an extended holdout, but he was a terrifying weapon against any defense in Madden. His speed and 99 acceleration allows Wallace to burn cornerbacks who miss presses or are caught not playing back, while his route running and hands often took advantage of defenses that wouldn't put a person within five yards of him. His spectacular catch can come into play for those clutch moments on the sideline when you need that drive to put a team away or to keep your team in it. He rarely drops an open pass and holds onto the ball most of the time after contact to secure receptions. Even if he doesn't get 200 yards receiving, most users will respect his speed enough to put a safety overtop of the corner covering him for support. If they don't, Wallace could have an easy path to the end zone.
Antonio Brown: Speed: 93; Catch: 90; Spectacular Catch: 86; Route Running: 87; Overall: 86.
Brown's skillset allows for him to be an ok possession receiver to compliment Wallace, while also being a constant threat to make one player miss and score. Brown may not have the same breakaway speed as Wallace to separate from cornerbacks and outrun entire defensive backfields to catch a bomb as much as Wallace does, but he is great for weaving through zone coverage and frustrating users with his speed. Ultimately Brown is still not the premier player in Madden yet like Santonio Holmes was in Madden 2009, but he is a significant piece to the puzzle of a dangerous passing scheme in Tomlin's playbook. The key is creativity; that will be explained shortly.
Emmanuel Sanders: Speed: 94; Catch: 83; Spectacular Catch: 84; Route Running: 75; Overall: 75.
Sanders is essentially like a faster more raw form of Antonio Brown. Doesn't have the polished route running, or the consistent hands to keep making plays in the open field, but he does resemble Brown when he first came to the Steelers. Deadly speed that could end up tearing apart any effort you make on defense if your opponent does not pay attention to him. On occasion you will see him run a route too wide or be thrown off his pattern more often than Brown and Wallace by pressing corners, but he is a major component to beating zone defenses and getting past one-on-one coverages.
Backups: Plaxico Burress, Jerricho Cotchery and David Gilreath
While the addition of Burress in the Steelers' season did not change much, it was a nice Christmas gift to Steelers users on Madden. Many teams with huge receivers and tight ends will abuse height advantages in the red zone with high bullet passes and fade routes to the point where it gets annoying. The Steelers hadn't had such a weapon since Burress, but with him back it meant we could at least do it for another year. His spectacular catch is equal to Wallace's and his other stats make him a valuable member to the receiving corps. I still wouldn't take out Sanders for him because speed is the #1 weapon in Madden, but he's definitely a solid option in shotgun or long down and distances scenarios. Cotchery is a solid backup to make catches but won't get open too easily and doesn't provide any major advantages as he is a consistently above a mediocre wide receiver. David Gilreath is that player that if you're down to him in the depth chart you need to become innovative in your game plan to move the ball.
The Steelers are not a ground and pound team in Madden, so the best way to approach each drive is to put your speedy receivers on the field to give yourself the option to exploit holes in the defense. However this doesn't always require you to call a formation from the shotgun or spreading out your receivers, the key is to find creative ways to catch defenses out of position. One of my favorite formations is the singleback-jumbo set. It is designed to put as many tight ends as possible on the field to maximize run blocking potential and short yard passing attempts. However if you substitute in Antonio Brown for your 2nd tight end on the left side of the line and Emmanuel Sanders for your 3rd tight end on the right side (leaving Heath Miller at his position) you have a formation with three receivers, your starting running back and Miller to toy around with.
This allows for Brown and Sanders to be lined up in the middle of the field against linebackers and safeties rather than cornerbacks. Should the defense be in a cover two package, a go route from Brown could easily become a touchdown. Slant patterns are also a way to make your opponent pull their hair out on third down when their outside linebacker is trying to cover Sanders in man coverage as he flies to one side or the other. Use your audibles within the formation to create your own pass plays with hot routes while coming to the play with an off tackle run already called to catch the defense sleeping. When you make your substitutions the defense will be alerted that there are three receivers on the field and may come out in a nickel or dime package. Should they do so, an audible to a dive to exploit the middle of the defensive line (or lack thereof) or an off tackle run can rattle off anywhere between 2-12 yards if your line executes the blocking well enough.
I run a lot of formations out of the singleback sets in order to have more options with Wallace, Miller, Brown and Sanders. The bunch set often allows for Brown to streak up the field with his inside shoulder free unless your opponent is manually covering that shoulder. An open shoulder with Roethlisberger can mean a quick completion with his bullet pass. Be careful for lurking linebackers on his bullet passes because good users can expect which passing lane you're aiming for and jump quickly to make an interception.
When you notice your opponent playing to stop inside passes to the middle of the field or taking away the seams for Ben to throw his low trajectory bullet passes, this is when Roethlisberger's touch comes into play. Run corner, outs, hooks and post routes with your receivers outside the numbers of the field to catch your opponents' defenders put of position to cover sideline passes. Also always keep an eye out for when your opponent presses your receivers so you can hot route one of your speedsters to a go route for the potential to beat them deep. Like the real Ben Roethlisberger, you won't hit your receiver every time on such a route, but when you do it will be costly to the other team and they will think about the possibility of that happening for the rest of the game.
These strategies are not full-proof, but they have worked for me to win a large majority of my matchups. Next installment will be about the defensive unit.