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The Ben Roethlisberger Dilemma: How the Steelers QB is impacting the offense, Part 2

The Steelers most important player is part of the problem.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

Often a person’s greatest strength is also their greatest weakness. Quick judgement is a great attribute in many situations, and a liability in others. Great confidence is often a requirement to succeed, but it can also make you blind to your own faults.

In Football, a running back’s creativity and elusiveness can lead them to big losses as well as big gains. A quarterback’s confidence in his arm strength can lead to great plays downfield, but also ill-advised throws.

The Steelers offense’s greatest strength is their quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. But in this film room, we are going to look at how right now Ben Roethlisberger has added his name to the growing list of problems with the Steelers offense.

The Ravens solve Ben Roethlisberger’s play calling

I am in no way trying to pin all the blame on Ben Roethlisberger. In the first part of this film room I talked about the circumstances of a shortened off-season, Ben Roethlisberger rehabbing, a receiver room of mostly players Roethlisberger hadn’t thrown to much all contributed to the Steelers relying on tricks to integrate Matt Canada’s offense into an offense Ben Roethlisberger has experience running. I also showed how defenses solved those tricks, and pushed the Steelers into abandoning things that had been working because teams could now see them coming.

From Week 8 through Week 11 the Steelers increasingly leaned on Roethlisberger to run the offense, increasing the use of no-huddle, empty sets and putting more play calling responsibility on their quarterback.

The Ravens had forced the Steelers to go that direction in week 8, and when they met the Steelers again in Week 12, they were ready to take that away as well.

Week 12, 1st quarter, 11:57. Diontae Johnson is the second receiver from the bottom of the screen.

The Steelers started going 5-wide and pulling their tight ends off the line to force defenses to abandon the hook zones and open up the middle of the field.

The Ravens adjusted to that with altering how they defend trips formations. When the Steelers put three receivers on one side of the field, the Ravens put their safety on that side in that hook zone with their deep safety to the weak side. That’s one key to this play. You can see the defender on the 30 yard line picks up Eric Ebron, but he starts, and stays in that hook zone, taking away quick slants, posts and hooks Ben Roethlisberger loves to run from trips.

The second key is the Raven on the edge to the top of the screen. He fakes a blitz, and then drops, looking for and meeting Diontae Johnson’s drag route. The Ravens found a solution to the route combos Roethlisberger was calling to get open players in these areas.

Week 12, 1st quarter, 12:02. Marcus Peters (#24) is the cornerback to the bottom of the screen.

Another way Ben Roethlisberger torched the Ravens in the second half of Week 8 was using bunches and stack formations to change the personnel matchups the Ravens were winning and create mismatches. The Ravens countered that by running more zone, and using switches in man that allowed them to keep their defensive backs playing to their strengths. Here the motion ends up with Chase Claypool outside on a safety, and as it looks like Marcus Peters is coming inside to pick up Eric Ebron Roethlisberger throws to Claypool, but Peters doesn’t commit to the inside routes, he is moving to a deep half zone, passing off the post route to the safety and splitting the two vertical routes. Peters has time to get back to Claypool and break up the pass. Underneath you can see the Ravens pass Diontae Johnson (receiver to the top) off to a linebacker who simply shoves him off his route.

Meeting the underneath routes (especially Diontae Johnson) with a bigger player blocking or altering his route, messing up the timing while maintaining early presence in those hook zones to the trip side and keeping a deep fielder to take away the sideline largely solved all of the variations of Ben Roethlisberger’s plays.

Quarterbacks aren’t coordinators, their tendencies are easier to solve. The Steelers showed that in 2005 when they stymied Peyton Manning largely because he had so much control over play calling and they did what the Patriots would do and run their defense to defend Manning’s play calling. It always stood out to me that the next season Marvin Harrison told Manning to call a run late in their game against the Patriots, they scored and went to the Super Bowl. Ben Roethlisberger’s play calling can’t be the focus of the offense, it just won’t work.

After the Week 13 loss to the Washington Football Team, Chase Young stated that Baltimore had exposed some things about the Steelers offense. It’s true, they did, and Washington copied.

Week 13, 1st quarter, 3:00. watch how they defend the trips formation to the top of the screen.

Washington uses a box defense against the trips, getting a linebacker in the way of the drag route, keeping the hook zone occupied to take away slants and post routes while the outside corner drives his receiver to the sideline.

This gives the Steelers a 1v1 deep down the opposite sideline that they fail to exploit.

The Steelers didn’t have time between their games against Baltimore and Washington to change anything, they had 4 days while Washington had 10 days, plenty of time to implement a scheme, and then modify it to fit what they learned in the Ravens game.

Ben Roethlisberger isn’t your typical quarterback

One of Ben Roethlisberger’s best traits is how he steps up his game in the biggest games and moments. The downside of that is the games where his play isn’t elevated. Similarly Ben Roethlisberger has a great history of making big throws downfield. The downside of that is he often passes up safer plays to take a chance.

Week 13, 1st quarter, 4:46. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Second and 10, Ben Roethlisberger starts this play looking to the short middle, and Diontae Johnson is open and would easily gain 7 or more yards. But his quarterback has bigger plans. Roethlisberger can count, and his pre-snap read showed him he had another 1v1 on the outside. As soon as the inside coverage showed he was right Roethlisberger fires to Washington for 30 yards. A great play and a lot more than the 7-10 yards Johnson likely gets, but it was also a higher risk throw. When Ben Roethlisberger’s pre-snap read is wrong, or the receiver just doesn’t get open, it can lead to much worse results.

Week 12, 1st quarter, 8:32. Derek Watt is the receiver farthest to the top of the screen

Ben Roethlisberger sees he has two 1v1 matchups with Chase Claypool and Eric Ebron to the bottom of the screen, so he starts the play looking there. To the top of the screen, while Roethlisberger is looking to Claypool Derek Watt is wide open. The play worked, but based on Roethlisberger’s pre-snap read he saw the outside routes to the bottom as a better bet than the inside route to the top. If Roethlisberger follows the play’s proper progression this would likely be a touchdown to Watt, instead it ends up an interception.

To throw in some balance, there’s this play against the Bengals.

Week 10, 3rd quarter, 4:12.

Look to the top of the screen, with how the defense is set up, that’s his correct read. It is second and ten, take the 5 yard gain. Instead Roethlisberger throws a dangerous ball into traffic for a touchdown. Roethlisberger’s style is one of his greatest strengths, but also one of his greatest weaknesses.

Those plays also show another key trait that is important to understanding Ben Roethlisberger, and that is trust. Ben Roethlisberger is going to take these kinds of shots, and when he does, he trusts his receiver to make a play. The Super Bowl winning touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes is a great example. He threw a ton of those balls to Antonio Brown as well.

When Ben Roethliaberger is at his best, it’s when he has a receiver that he knows is on the same page as him, and will make plays on his riskier passes. Roethlisberger started his career with Hines Ward, the Steelers added Heath Miller and Santonio Holmes. By the time those three were gone, Antonio Brown had taken over that role for the Steelers.

I assumed JuJu Smith-Schuster would take over that mantle, but that hasn’t happened. What we’ve seen is Ben Roethlisberger focus on Diontae Johnson, Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool when things break down.

Week 12, 1st quarter, 9:18. Eric Ebron is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

Eric Ebron is able to win his out route on this play, and the ball is waiting for him when he does. Ben Roethlisberger throws with anticipation a lot, so it is incredibly important that the receiver’s reads, adjustment and timing are the same as Roethlisberger’s. That’s a huge part of the trust factor.

Week 14, 4th quarter, 13:44. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Diontae Johnson got himself benched early in Week 14 for drops, he sat for roughly half the game, and when he came back he caught the football and the Steelers offense marched down the field and scored a touchdown to make is a one score game.

Looking for answers

Diontae Johnson and Eric Ebron have been the major culprits when it comes to the dropped passes that have derailed the Steelers offense. They keep getting targets though, because Ben Roethlisberger is trying to forge that chemistry that he needs to have this offense be the kind of offense that can win a Super Bowl. As fans we can give up on them and say the team needs to find another way, but Roethlisberger and the Steelers know that they need to find a Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes, Antonio Brown receiver for a Ben Roethlisberger offense to thrive. Right now they don’t have one.

There is hope though. In 2011 Antonio Brown made his first Pro Bowl and 1000 yard season. But it didn’t look good early on. through week 6 Antonio Brown was targeted 39 times, while Mike Wallace was targeted 44 times. On those targets Brown caught less than 50%, for 262 yards and no touchdowns. Wallace caught 75% for 612 yards and 4 touchdowns. Brown was dropping passes, he and Ben weren’t getting it going but yet the targets were coming his way. by the end of the season, though, Antonio Brown was on his way to being a star.

Diontae Johnson isn’t Antonio Brown, he’s never going to be as dominant as Antonio Brown was, but if he can get his head in the right place and hold onto the football, this offense will return to being dangerous. Chase Claypool isn’t that guy as a rookie, he’s shown flashes, but teams are attacking the less polished parts of his game and limiting him. JuJu Smith-Schuster doesn’t seem to be that guy either. The players Ben trusts right now are Eric Ebron and Diontae Johnson. If they can turn their struggles around, this offense will have a chance to be a difference maker.

Don’t get me wrong, the receivers aren’t the only problem, and the Steelers aren’t putting all their eggs in that basket. They are working on integrating more of Canada’s designs properly, with multiple threats that compliment each other out of any formation and motion. The Steelers are putting Ben under center and using more play action than they were in the middle of the season. There are things the team is doing to fix the scheme. Along with that the offensive line needs to play better. A lot of what the Steelers are trying to implement isn’t working because the line is losing their battles. You can’t scheme a run game around poor blocking, you can’t do it. Just like you can’t scheme a passing game around a quarterback’s inability to throw good passes, the offensive line needs to get healthy and play better.

But none of that will put this team back on track if Ben Roethlisberger is playing in the playoffs without a receiver he can run his offense through. And for this season, that means hoping Diontae Johnson can turn this around and be the receiver he keeps showing flashes of being.


Steelers Offense Film Room, Part 1: The Ben Roethlisberger vs. Matt Canada offenses