Like a drunken teenager skinny-dipping in Crystal Lake on a beautiful moonlit night, I couldn’t escape the feeling that something bad was about to happen all morning prior to the Steelers’ 1 p.m. kickoff against the Browns on Sunday. All we’d heard about since Saturday was how the game would have to be played in almost monsoon-like conditions. My biggest concern is always the wind factor. It’s been my experience that windy conditions severely limit the passing game and often manage to level the playing field when one team is superior to the other offensively, especially at the quarterback position.
I recall a Thursday-night matchup between the Bengals and Browns a few years back as a perfect example of the tremendous havoc weather can play. The game appeared on paper as a mid-season mismatch between a young, talented Bengals squad on the rise and — as usual — the hapless Browns. The game was rather damp throughout, but the real issue was the windy conditions. To be successful in a contest played with strong, sustained winds, a quarterback needs superior arm strength and the ability to throw a tight spiral that cuts through the wind resistance. Sadly, Bengals’ QB Andy Dalton had neither. All night long, Dalton’s throws where hysterically off target and literally fell from the night sky like some waterfowl on an episode of Duck Dynasty. One fade-pattern down the Bengals’ sideline got caught in the wind and sailed over their entire bench. It was probably the worst performance of Dalton’s career and it led to a Browns’ upset.
Even though Big Ben has the superior arm-strength required to excel in less-than-ideal conditions, I was still concerned the weather would somehow impact the game. Bruce Arians just happened to be doing his first live on-air broadcast and he spoke glowingly about what a great bad-weather QB Ben Roethlisberger has always been. Who better to speak on Ben’s prowess than his former OC and present-day friend? But there was something they all failed to realize.
That was then, and this is now. Early in Ben’s career the Steelers were predominantly a power-running football team. The team sought to punish the opposition physically and control time of possession. Ben could execute the game plan and then improvise those three or four miraculous, backyard scramble plays required to win the game. They were built for the harsh weather conditions of the AFC North division made up of teams that play in open-air stadiums in the harsh climate of the Northeast. We had Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis for Pete’s sake, quite possibly the greatest mudder the game has ever seen. The Bus had impeccable balance for such a large man, and he took short, choppy steps which allowed him to accelerate without slippage. We even had incredible physicality on the outside in power-receiver Hines Ward. But like all great things in life, they eventually come to an end.
The modern version of the Pittsburgh Steelers is a grip-it-and-rip-it, big-play down-the-field unit. This offense is dependent on gaining yardage in big chunks. They’re always among the league leaders in plus-25-yard plays. The Steelers’ offense is at it’s best when playing uptempo and spreading the field to create favorable mismatches.
So why did the Steelers move away from their tried-and-true methods which seemed to be a better fit in their division? Partly because it was the natural progression of a team with a franchise QB, and partly out of necessity. Seemingly annual rule changes have forced the majority of teams to embrace the air-it-out, path-of-least-resistance, offensive revolution. The creativity of modern offensive coordinators and the corresponding defensive packages implemented by their counterparts are nothing short of breathtaking for any football fanatic like myself. If the old fellas were playing checkers, then these young whippersnappers are most definitely playing chess. Look how far we’ve come. I still remember thinking that Pong was the greatest thing ever, now they have Fortnite — whatever that is. JuJu seems to like it.
Like it or not, Big Ben is the face of the franchise. Ben’s arm talent is the straw that stirs the drink. The threat of the big-play down the field keeps the safeties back and opens up the running game. That’s why a backup like DeAngelo Williams or James Conner can step in and perform at a high level of success. I’m not trying to diminish their talents or contributions, but the impact of Ben’s presence on the running game is unmistakable. Furthermore, the only instances where the impeccable Antonio Brown has appeared to be a mere mortal is when Big Ben has failed to take the field.
That’s why Ben Roethlisberger must play better moving forward if the Steelers are going to a have a winning season. There were extenuating circumstances which led to Ben’s sub-par performance on Sunday. The wind turned out to be a non-issue, but the downpour definitely contributed to the offensive linemen’s struggles with their footwork throughout the game — especially during the second half when the rain intensified and the field conditions worsened. I’m not concerned with the line moving forward under more normal field conditions and I’ve got the utmost faith that Coach Munchak will identify and alleviate the situation.
I also feel Antonio Brown was playing at less than 100% in the game. Nobody covers Brown one-on-one unless they utilize the catch-and-release technique mastered by the Shermans and Ramseys of the league. This philosophy is dependent on the rationale that, if you do it every play, there’s no way they can flag them all. But I never witnessed Browns’ rookie CB Denzel Ward using these tactics during the game. So either young Ward is the second coming of Deion Sanders or Brown wasn’t completely recovered from the injury that kept him out all preseason. He struggled all day to gain any separation on his routes and he didn’t seem to be up to snuff. I expect him to improve this week, barring any setback with the injury.
Also, Justin Hunter can't be the third-best receiver on this team. If he is, then the Steelers have a problem. He should be no more than a fourth or fifth option. A tall, fast guy who you put in to take the top off of the defense, much like DHB. He tried to run an out-route — I believe it was in the third quarter — and literally tripped over his own feet. Ben needs to take the rookie Washington under his wing and build a rapport with the young man while explaining what he expects from the position so they can get on the same page — and quickly.
Hopefully, Vance McDonald will return this week and offer another athletic threat over the middle of the field, kind of like he did in the playoff loss to the Jaguars. But I wouldn't advise holding your breath to see it. Thus far, the dude’s been an injury waiting to happen.
Ben will play better moving forward and so will the offense because of it. This team will only go as far as Ben takes it. Thankfully history shows that can be pretty far.