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In the Steelers’ Week 15 loss, Ben Roethlisberger was the problem

The run game showed up, receivers didn’t drop passes, and the offense was awful.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The Steelers lost their third straight game, and that loss gave the Bengals their third win, and Ryan Finley his first win as a starting quarterback. Last year Ryan Finley lost to the Steelers in a game where the Steelers benched Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges came in and won the game. With Devlin Hodges on the practice squad this year, the Steelers left Roethlisberger in for the full game. That’s a joke people, but it’s not a funny joke, because Rudolph and Hodges combined had a better day against the Bengals in 2019 than Roethlisberger did in 2020, and in 2019 the Steelers had James Washington, Diontae Johnson, Deon Cain and Tevin Jones as their top 4 wide receivers.

Off to a bad start

While the early stages of the Steelers Week 14 loss was dominated by receivers dropping the ball, Week 15 was dominated by bad passes.

1st quarter, 15:00.

First play of the game, James Washington wins the release, stacks the corner, and the ball is underthrown and right in the defenders lap. James Washington isn’t a speed demon, there’s no excuse for an underthrow this bad. The first play of the game should have been a turnover.

1st quarter, 14:15. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the right side of the screen.

Deep ball is off, so the Steelers go for a nice short route to get their quarterback going. The ball is over Diontae Johnson’s head and behind him. Three and out to start the game. The first 5 possessions for the Steelers offense would net 9 total yards of offense, while Ben Roethlisberger completed 4 of his first 10 passes for a total of 5 yards.

The more things change, the more they stay the same

The Steelers tried changing things up to get the offense moving, and while it worked for the running game, with Benny Snell gaining a respectable 84 yards on 18 carries, the passing game continued to fall flat.

1st quarter, 11:!5. Diontae Johnson is the receiver farthest to the left side of the screen.

The Steelers run play action, and Diontae Johnson is open. Roethlisberger sees Johnson, sets his feet, and overthrows the ball.

1st quarter, 0:55. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the line in the stack to the left.

The Steelers stack three receivers in a line to get Smith-Schuster a free release, but the Bengals didn’t miss the last three games, and if you see three receivers on one side, the drag is where Roethlisberger is going to go with the ball. Von Bell takes off as soon as he sees the drag route, leaving Chase Claypool wide open before Roethlisberger throws the ball, because he knows the drag is where the ball is going.

His hustle and attention to film are rewarded with a forced fumble. It doesn’t matter how you dress it up if the quarterback’s read is predictable.

2nd quarter, 6:01. Watch the defender lined up at the 42 yard line on the hashmarks to the bottom of the screen.

Another thing we’ve seen from defenses the last few weeks is keeping defenders in the hook zones, and this is why. Roethlisberger wants the post on the outside, and he either doesn’t see the defender, or he has misread the Bengals zone as a man defense and is expecting him to follow Claypool instead of passing him off to the safeties. Either way it’s another bad play for the quarterback, and the Bengals don’t let this one touch the ground.

Mistakes undo the comeback

In the second half the offense showed promise, starting with two scoring drives and the third drive started with a nine yard gain on first down, bringing up 2nd and 1.

3rd quarter, 3:08. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

This pass is tipped, but that’s largely irrelevant. If you look to the top of the screen you can see the Steelers running a screen for Smith-Schuster. The slot corner shows blitz early and Smith-Schuster has James Washington blocking the outside corner, Vance McDonald heading upfield and Alejandro Villanueva heading to block a linebacker. He needs to get to the 42 yard line for the first down.

Instead Ben Roethlisberger looks to Diontae Johnson on the other side, taking a hit from a free-rushing edge to make this throw. Roethlisberger took a hit to throw to Johnson because the corner was in off coverage. If the ball wasn’t tipped the linebacker probably makes a play on the ball instead. The Bengals baited Roethlisberger with that off coverage, and it worked. The slot screen is not just there, the Bengals blitzing corner makes it an easy win, but Roethlisberger passes on that to bite on the Bengals bait. Snell’s third down run would get stuffed and the Steelers would punt.

With two minutes left in the game the Steelers were down 7 points and the ball was in the hands of a player known for these situations.

4th quarter, 1:56. James Washington is the receiver farthest to the top of the screen.

James Washington creates enough space to get the first down on this play, but the ball is high again as Roethlisberger is under pressure.

Look at how deep Roethlisberger drops on this play, with the shotgun formation and drop Ben Roethlisberger ends up 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. That kind of drop allows the edge rushers to get pressure without having to turn a corner at all, they can just rush straight at him. There is room to step up on this play, but with the deep drop and timing, Roethlisberger has to throw it as soon as his three-step drop ends. Even with DeCastro struggling and J.C. Hassenauer in, you have to trust your interior lineman more than this.

It is fitting that the first and last pass attempts of the game were to James Washington, and neither one gave him a chance to make the kind of clutch catches he has consistently made this season.


I’d love to have some hope to offer here, but I’ve got nothing other than the Steelers time to get this fixed hasn’t fully run out. There’s always the hope that three weeks before Wild Card weekend will be just enough time for this offense to find some kind of identity that they can succeed with.

This was the get-right game. Ben Roethlisberger was 13-2 in games at Paul Brown stadium, and has some of the best stats at that stadium of any quarterback. Not only was this game Roethlisberger’s third loss, it was his worst passer rating ever in Paul Brown Stadium.

The other games it was easy to point to drops from wide receivers, an awful run game and make excuses for Roethlisberger amidst the offensive struggles. But in week 15 the results were the same, despite better results from the run game. It’s hard to point to the receivers either when the passes weren’t on target and it’s hard to blame the scheme when the quarterback is going off script when the play design worked.

This loss is on Ben Roethlisberger, and the Steelers need a win or the Jets to beat the Browns to keep from losing the division they had all but wrapped up three weeks ago. I know it is an overreaction, but this game had the feeling of a game you point to later when you talk about the point when a franchise quarterback can no longer live up to that designation.