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Ben Roethlisberger and the return of the vertical passing game to the Pittsburgh offense

If Big Ben is really back, the Steelers’ offense should see the return of a missing ingredient

Pittsburgh Steelers v New England Patriots Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

I started to write this article four months ago, just after the Steelers’ 2019 season ended with their anemic offense unable to generate enough points down the stretch to get them into the playoffs. The article intended to highlight how the inability of Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges to push the ball downfield greatly hampered the offense and how, with a healthy Ben Roethlisberger, it would be more dangerous in 2020.

Then I put the brakes on. What if there was no healthy Roethlisberger in 2020? What if he never healed properly, or could not return to something resembling his former self? What if the Steelers selected a quarterback high in the draft, or pursued a high-profile free agent like Jameis Winston or Teddy Bridgewater? There were too many unknowns to write that article at the time, so I put it on the shelf.

As we now know, the Steelers did not pursue another quarterback. They gambled on the return of a healthy “QB7” to guide the offense in 2020. The jury is still out on just how healthy Big Ben will be when football returns, but any Steelers fan who watched the brief video Roethlisberger put out last week had to be excited at what they saw.

There’s not much to the video, really, other than some quick shots of Roethlisberger’s throwing motion and a few cut-ins of Ryan Switzer and JuJu Smith-Schuster catching balls. The excitement comes at the fact that this does not appear to be some soft-toss rehab session. Roethlisberger is ripping throws like a healthy quarterback. JuJu adds to the intrigue at the end by teasing, “He’s baaaack.” For those of us going stir-crazy for real entertainment while on COVID lock-down, this is as titillating as it gets.

The video gave me the confidence I needed to dust off my Roethlisberger piece. I still have reservations— elbow surgery is a big deal for a 38 year-old NFL quarterbac— but what I saw suggested rust may be a bigger issue for Big Ben than health. A guy still experiencing pain or worrying about re-injury doesn’t cut loose like that. If Roethlisberger has enough mental confidence in his elbow to return, he will simply need game reps to reclaim his form. Game reps are less daunting than reservations about one’s health. I am more confident now Roethlisberger can return effectively than I’ve been since he went down last September.

Roethlisberger’s return is exciting for all the obvious reasons. He is a Hall of Fame quarterback who, based on his play in 2018, still has some gas in the tank. He is an upgrade over the young quarterbacks who replaced him last season in just about every conceivable way. More specifically, a healthy Roethlisberger will restore something the Steelers missed desperately last season— the vertical passing game. That is our focus here: How and why Big Ben’s vertical passing proficiency will provide a valuable missing ingredient, and the ripple effect it will have on other aspects of the offense.

QB7: A Refresher Course

In case you’ve forgotten, Ben Roethlisberger is a great quarterback. He didn’t look great in the six quarters he played in 2019, but that’s a tiny sample size. If we go back to the 2018 season, we find ample evidence of his greatness, particularly when it comes to pushing the football down the field.

There’s this throw to JuJu, who is blanketed in press-man coverage by Jacksonville’s Jalen Ramsey. There is simply no room to fit this throw in, yet Ben somehow finds a window on the back shoulder:

There’s this throw against Atlanta where Roethlisberger expertly moves the single-high safety with his eyes to open up a window to JuJu down the opposite seam:

There’s this beauty of a touch pass off of play-action against the Ravens, with Roethlisberger dropping the ball into a tight window between the backers and the safeties:

And, of course, the home-run ball:

Back foot, pressure in his face, six yards deep in his own end zone.

No problem.

Roethlisberger might not have the canon for an arm he possessed at age 25 but he can still make just about every type of throw to every area of the field. With Roethlisberger in the lineup, the Steelers can attack the field vertically or horizontally, can build answers into their game-plan for any coverage and can throw the ball to the backs, wideouts or tight ends. Roethlisberger can be a slow starter, can throw too many interceptions, and, as we saw in those six quarters in 2019, is not always sharp. But there are no limits in the game-plan when he is behind center, which gives the Steelers a chance no matter the situation. After a 2019 season that saw the Steelers employ an offense on training wheels, this is music to the ears.

Why the vertical passing game? How does it benefit the offense?

The obvious answer is a proficient vertical passing game creates explosive plays, which are integral to the outcome of football games. It also forces defenses to loosen up, creating opportunities elsewhere in the passing game and making it easier to run the football.

Let’s look more closely at explosive plays. In the passing game, explosive plays are defined as completions of fifteen yards or more. The Steelers struggled mightily in this department last season, finishing 30th in the league with an explosive play rate of 7%. In 2016-2018, with a healthy Roethlisberger, they finished 3rd, 10th and 14th, respectively. They were especially weak generating explosive plays to their tight ends last season, where they decreased from 17 in 2018 to just two. Rudolph and Hodges could throw the occasional fade ball outside the numbers to their wide receivers, but they could not read defenses well enough to exploit the middle of the field where explosive plays to tight ends and slot receivers often occur.

In terms of explosive run plays (plays of 10+ yards), the Steelers went from 14th in 2017 to 17th in 2018 to 27th last season. It’s no secret they lacked a home-run hitter in the backfield for years. With Roethlisberger at quarterback, however, they presented enough of a vertical threat to force defenses into two-high shells, which allowed them to generate a moderate amount of explosive run plays. Last season, against a steady diet of eight and sometimes nine-man boxes, those explosive runs were almost non-existent.

Explosive plays are not the definitive barometer of an effective offense but they sure help with overall success. According to Sharp Football Statistics, the top 5 teams in the NFL last season in explosive plays went a combined 55-25. In 2018, the top 5 went 51-29 (fourth-ranked San Francisco was an outlier at 4-12; the other four teams went 47-17). Teams that make explosive plays generally win football games because of their ability to strike quickly, keep defenses from playing too aggressively, and dictate matchups.

Not all explosive plays are generated via the vertical passing game, of course. There are plenty of screen passes, catch-and-run throws and handoffs that become “explosive.” The vertical passing game helps set these other plays up by loosening (or widening) safeties, forcing linebackers to defend seam routes, and making teams less enthusiastic about playing aggressive man coverage.

Anyone who remembers the Larry Fitzgerald touchdown against the Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII that put Arizona ahead late— setting the stage for the Roethlisberger/Santonio Holmes heroics— may recall the Steelers were so worried about defending sideline vertical routes that they positioned safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark halfway between the hash and the numbers. Fitzgerald beat corner Ike Taylor inside on a slant and split the safeties up the gut. A ten-yard completion turned into a 64-yard touchdown because the Steelers were determined to defend the deep ball.

(Initially, I posted a GIF of this play but after watching it a few times I decided not to inflict it upon you. You’re welcome).

The bottom line is this: Few explosive plays happen when a defense has no fear of an offense’s ability to push the ball down the field. The Steelers are a far more explosive offense with Ben Roethlisberger on the field because of this vertical passing ability. Given the addition on offense of players like Eric Ebron, Chase Claypool and Anthony McFarland, all of whom can threaten a defense with their size and/or speed, it’s possible the Steelers will have more explosive-play candidates in 2020 than they have had in years.

Why couldn’t Rudolph and Hodges execute these types of throws?

I won’t spend a lot of time rehashing the shortcomings of our young quarterbacks. They were thrust into situations for which they were not yet prepared and were often judged harshly for it. Flip Fisher and Geoffrey Benedict did a great job breaking them both down this past winter. I will simply refer readers who would like to hear more about Rudolph and Hodges to this piece. And to this one.

The one thing I will address concerns their inability to read a defense, particularly in the middle of the field. These are the hardest reads for a quarterback to make, for several reasons. First, as you can imagine, there is a lot of clutter in the middle of an NFL football field. Incredibly large human beings clashing violently. Individuals with world-class speed moving in every possible direction. Three seconds max to diagnose, decide and deliver before an angry man smashes you to the turf. The middle of the field can look like chaos to even the most trained eye in live action. Analysts have the ability to play a film back again and again in order to decipher what’s happening. Quarterbacks don’t have the luxury.

Under Roethlisberger, the Steelers have historically run a host of passing concepts that attack the middle of the field both vertically and horizontally. Two examples include Mesh and Shallow Cross, which have been staples of their passing game for years (both concepts are broken down here). Each begins with a quick read of a vertical route (with mesh it’s a corner or post from the Z-receiver; with shallow cross it’s a nine-route from the X). If the QB likes the look, they will throw that first read immediately. If not, they will come down to a second or even third read where they must find receivers crossing the field. To make things more complicated, each route has multiple variations that can change which receivers run which routes (depending on formation) and on how those routes are run (on mesh, crossers are to keep running versus man coverage but settle into open areas versus zone). So, to make these concepts work, pre-snap and post-snap reads of a defense are necessary by both the quarterback and his receivers.

If a quarterback is indecisive on his first read, the vertical route to the outside, he will inevitably be late reading the crossers. Late reads in the middle of the field lead to sacks, interceptions or receivers getting hammered. To avoid this, experienced quarterbacks often make a pre-snap decision on the first read. Roethlisberger is an expert at allowing a play clock to tick down to its last second before snapping the ball so he knows exactly what look he’s getting from a defense. This speeds up his decision-making and allows him to get to second and even third reads in a progression. Rudolph and Hodges were simply unable to do such things.

After watching the young QBs struggle with these reads, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner started to simplify the progressions and to eliminate the more advanced passing concepts from the playbook. This “training wheels” approach was necessary but it limited the capability of the offense and, inevitably, doomed the Steelers down the stretch.

How might the Steelers integrate the vertical passing game in 2020?

I would expect the more aggressive passing schemes Roethlisberger prefers to return to the playbook. The Steelers have vertical threats all over the field. Claypool was selected with his deep-ball capability in mind. Ebron is one of the best field-stretching tight ends in the game. James Washington has shown an ability to win down the field in one-on-one situations. Diontae Johnson is a budding star at receiver. And, if you didn’t notice, every GIF I played of Roethlisberger above involved a throw to JuJu Smith-Schuster. This was not a coincidence. I sought out those plays to remind readers of the chemistry that Big Ben and JuJu enjoyed for two seasons. I would expect that chemistry to return, especially now that Smith-Schuster is surrounded by receiving talent all over the field.

Speaking of JuJu, some of his best work with Roethlisberger occurred when he aligned in the slot. Now that players like Washington, Claypool and Ebron can man the outside roles or present vertical threats to a defense, JuJu is free to again operate out of the slot where his size, speed, and toughness make him a difficult matchup for nickel corners, linebackers, and safeties:

I’ve always thought the question of whether Smith-Schuster was a “#1” receiver was misguided. The question shouldn’t be “Is he a #1?” but “How is he most effective?” Teams like the Patriots and Eagles have shown a so-called #1 receiver or running back is not imperative so long as they have a variety of players who can master the roles necessary to make the offense effective. With JuJu free to operate more from the slot this season, and Claypool poised to assume some of his reps on the outside, and Ebron an accomplished field-stretcher from the tight end position, and, of course, QB7 back behind center, the Steelers have filled these roles. The result should be a more explosive and dynamic offense in 2020.