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Steelers Vertex: Despite his critics, Ben Roethlisberger is having an MVP season

Even though some so-called “experts” are down on him and the Steelers, the stats and the tape tell a different story.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Rather than wait around to see if the Steelers and Ravens get to finally play in Week 12, we thought we would tackle another issue this week. Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

The topic at hand this week is looking at the fantastic season quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is having coming off his elbow surgery which cost him all but 6 quarters of the 2019 season. Despite leading his team to a 10-0 start, some of the so-called “experts” have been very critical of both Roethlisberger and the Steelers. Specifically, Pro Football Focus went as far as to call the Steelers overrated and classify Roethlisberger as the worst quarterback of any contender.

So why is there so much hate toward Ben Roethlisberger from the likes of PFF? Is it a legitimate concern, or does Roethlisberger destroy their grading system for quarterbacks by being successful in ways other than what they deem to be the most important?

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

The stats for this section are not going be that extensive because, frankly, they don’t need to be. The most important statistic when it comes to Ben Roethlisberger for the 2020 season is 10 wins and 0 losses. You can argue anything else you want to, but that is the most important statistic a quarterback can have. Although quarterbacks can earn a win in a bad performance or take a loss and a great performance, ultimately winning the game in one way or another is the ultimate goal.

As for some of the other statistics for Roethlisberger, he has 24 touchdowns through 10 games. This amount has him currently tied for fifth in the NFL with the player he is tied with (Deshaun Watson) and the one with only one more ahead of him (Tom Brady) each already playing an extra game. Roethlisberger’s 24 touchdowns currently is the eighth most in his 17-year career, and that is with six games still to go! Ben would need 10 more touchdowns over the next six games to tie his season-best 34 touchdowns from 2018.

One of the most impressive statistics Roethlisberger has going in 2020 is his interception percentage which is the number of interceptions per attempted pass. Roethlisberger currently has a 1.3% value with his five interceptions in 380 pass attempts. This number is currently tied for his career best which was in 2010.

The 2020 season is also the fourth time in which Ben Roethlisberger has thrown at least one touchdown pass through the first 10 games of the Steelers’ season. Additionally, Roethlisberger has the most multi-touchdown games through 10 games in his career with 9 as the Steelers 38–7 blowout of the Cleveland Browns was the only game in which Roethlisberger did not have multiple touchdowns this season. The next closest for Roethlisberger was in 2018 where he had 7 multi-touchdown games through the first 10 games.

Additionally, Roethlisberger’s ability to spread the ball around to multiple receivers has been important to the Steelers success in 2020. Going into Week 12, the Steelers were the only team in the NFL to have three players with more than 500 receiving yards.

I could go on and on with statistics showing the type of season Ben Roethlisberger is having in 2020. But in this case, it’s the film that won’t lie in showing what Roethlisberger means to this Steelers team.

The Film Line:

Ben Roethlisberger returned to the field in 2020 after almost a year away from football. He recovered from elbow surgery and gained throwing strength in his arm only to see Covid-19 greatly restrict his time to work with his receivers. It didn’t help that outside of JuJu Smith-Schuster, he had thrown 45 passes to James Washington for 323 yards and a 65.3 passer rating, and 6 passes to Diontae Johnson for 25 yards and a 61.1 passer rating. Those ratings mirror his 62 passes thrown for a 66.0 passer rating in 2019.

With a lot of rust to shake off, and having to build relationships with new receivers, the results weren’t the most consistent to start the season.

Week 1, 2nd quarter, 0:46. Diontae Johnson is the receiver on the line to the top of the screen.

Watch Diontae Johnson’s route. He stops for a moment in the spot the ball should arrive. It doesn’t arrive. Roethlisberger is looking to Johnson first, then looks off of him and comes back to him too late, and throws the ball out of bounds. That’s what we call rust. The timing on his progression is a bit off and he misses the window to complete the pass to Johnson.

Week 3, 1st quarter, 14:02. Eric Ebron is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

Eric Ebron has been a great free agent addition to the Steelers, but before this season Roethlisberger had never played a real game with Ebron. On this play Ebron is wide open but Roethlisberger throws the ball behind him, and it’s incomplete.

Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t really himself, but he was playing smart enough to avoid costly mistakes, and the offense was moving the ball with underneath passes. Tomlin’s description of the offense as “taking what the defense gives us” is a great description of a game managing quarterback at work. Take what is there, don’t push for more, don’t make great plays, take the easy stuff, and wait to see if the defense gives you something better.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to bash Ben Roethlisberger, to the contrary, I think he’s playing the smartest football of his career. You just don’t come back from not throwing for that long to a locker room full of guys you’ve never had success throwing the ball to and set the league on fire right away. Roethlisberger found ways to get the job done without the chemistry with his targets that fueled his previous best years.

Then something happened in Tennessee. The Titans defense started loading the box, bumping out side receivers, playing the underneath routes Roethlisberger had been using to dissect defenses, and challenging Ben Roethlisberger to make harder throws, throws that require timing and chemistry, throws the Steelers hadn’t been connecting on.

Against the Titans Ben threw 3 picks. The next week, Baltimore threw the same defense at the Steelers, and the Steelers answered by going 5 wide receivers and letting their quarterback take over the offense, putting together route combos on the fly to get mismatches on the Ravens secondary.

Week 8, 4th quarter, 7:29. Chase Claypool is the receiver on the line to the bottom of the screen.

Roethlisberger eyes up Ray-Ray McCloud, pinning Marcus Peters to his short route, putting a safety on Chase Claypool for a touchdown. A masterful sequence of plays put the Ravens in this defense and set them up to get burned for the game winning touchdown.

In the last few games, Ben Roethlisberger is showing signs that his timing with his receivers and comfort making all the throws is returning.

Week 10, 1st quarter, 1:51. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

This is the kind of timing and chemistry (Wi-Fi is you will) that we weren’t seeing from Ben Roethlisberger early on.

Week 11, 2nd quarter, 7:07. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

That’s a great throw and catch. It isn’t a lob and hope Chase Claypool can run under it like Ben has been throwing, this is a quarterback knowing his receiver well enough to place the ball where it needs to be. This is Ben Roethlisberger shaking off the last bits of rust, moving out of game manager mode and into playmaker mode.

Ben Roethlisberger spent half of the 2020 season getting back to being himself while building chemistry with a group of receivers he hadn’t worked with much. That time is at an end. As good as Ben Roethlisberger has been this season, he’s still getting better.

The Point:

The statistics show Ben Roethlisberger is an MVP candidate, and the film shows that while his numbers and efficiency have been great, he is getting better as the season goes on. With 6 games on the schedule before the regular season ends, the Steelers have plenty of time to keep building the chemistry between their Hall of Fame quarterback and his talented room of young receivers.

While Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers are focused on winning a third Super Bowl together, should they accomplish that feat, adding Ben Roethlisberger’s first All-Pro designation and a most valuable player award would make sense.

Although, when you consider that Roethlisberger has led this team to rarely matched levels of success while watching many different receivers get the recognition in individual awards, maybe we shouldn’t count on the NFL recognizing what they have been seeing for the last 17 years, that Ben Roethlisberger is an all-time great quarterback.