One of the most underrated aspects of a good quarterback and wide receiver connection is chemistry. It’s not just a quarterback with a big arm and a wideout with good hands that makes a good passing offense. It’s the hours of practice that they put in to fine-tune every part of their craft, mastering the timing and cuts of routes that help them be successful on game day.
Back in simpler times when Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown were tearing up the NFL in one of the league’s most dangerous offenses, Steelers fans got a front row seat to how incredible a wide receiver and quarterback can be with good chemistry. Both were Hall of Fame talents, but Roethlisberger’s ability to extend plays and Brown’s knack for getting open, along with their uncanny ability to always be on the same page, were what set them apart form the other quarterback/receiver tandems in the NFL.
Currently in 2020, Brown’s time has since ended in Pittsburgh, but there is still a lot of excitement focused on the Steelers’ group of receivers. Besides Juju Smith-Schuster, the Steelers have three other exciting young talents in Diontae Johnson, James Washington, and Chase Claypool. Tight end Eric Ebron is another dynamic member of the team’s group of pass-catchers. As long as Ben Roethlisberger, who is returning from a season-ending elbow injury, can return to old form, the Steelers will once again tear up the league with such talent on offense, right?
Not so fast.
Juju Smith-Schuster, the Steelers #1 wide receiver entering 2020, is the only pass-catcher out of the starting four that Ben has had a successful connection with before. The third-year receiver and Pro-Bowler had a down year in 2019, struggling with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges at the helm of Pittsburgh’s offense. With Roethlisberger returning, it’s rather obvious he should have a bump in production.
But it’s not as much of a given with everyone else.
Diontae Johnson was a star rookie for the Steelers last year who managed to shine despite poor quarterback play. His time with Roethlisberger was limited to training camp and a little more than one game in 2019. While Johnson still managed to have some time with #7 as his quarterback, nearly all of his playing time and highlight-worthy plays were with another signal-caller. Johnson is an exciting athlete with loads of potential, but it remains to be seen how he’ll play with Roethlisberger. Big Ben is obviously the superior passer to Hodges and Rudolph, but fans hoping to see Johnson become a superstar in his second year may need to temper the hype as he and Ben will need to build a connection first.
James Washington has had a full year with Ben Roethlisberger before, his rookie season in 2018. However, buried on the depth chart beneath a talented receiving core, Washington didn’t get very much playing time, and when he did, his lack of practice with Roethlisberger showed. He and Ben never seemed to be on the same page, which was punctuated in a close game against Denver when Washington misjudged a Roethlisberger pass on a vertical route, diving unecessarily and dropping a wide open pass. The quarterback later voiced his disappointment in an interview.
In 2019, it looked as if Washington was going to have a chance at improving his connection with Big Ben, but Roethlisberger’s injury early on in the season killed any chances. In their one full game together, however, there was a glimmer of hope, with Washington catching a long ball in stride from Ben against the Patriots in Week 1. Washington shined with Devlin Hodges as quarterback later on in the season, leading the team in receiving yards, but his connection with Roethlisberger is still in doubt.
Rookie Chase Claypool is another Steelers receiver with little experience with Roethlisberger. However, unlike those mentioned above, it has nothing to do with Ben’s injury. Claypool is in his first year in the NFL, and will no doubt go through the motions as a rookie like any other newly-drafted receiver. Being drafted into a deep wide receiver room may hurt Claypool like it did James Washington, but it looks as if not putting too much responsibility on the raw young receiver might be a good thing.
While he isn’t a wide receiver, Eric Ebron was a big-signing as a pass-catching tight end this season for the Steelers. The Roethlisberger-to-Ebron connection has been hyped up a lot, and while there’s reason to be excited, Ebron has gone through some issues with chemistry in his career. His first NFL team, the Lions, brought him in as help for talented quarterback Matthew Stafford, but their connection never took off. Ebron left the Lions for the Colts, and became a red zone target for Andrew Luck. With Luck as quarterback, Ebron made the Pro Bowl, shaking off some of his draft bust status from earlier in his career. However, Luck retired after that season, and with replacement Jacoby Brissett, Ebron didn't have the same success he had enjoyed with Luck.
Now, Ebron has Ben Roethlisberger as his quarterback. The potential is sky-high, but it remains to be seen how the two will connect on the field.
While the concerns of this article might seem insignificant, it’s important to note how much the Steelers’ wide receiver and tight end rooms have changed since Ben’s last full season in 2018. And in the NFL, where passing windows are tight and the room for error is incredibly small, it will be paramount for Roethlisberger to build up chemistry with his new, young weapons at the skill positions. Every route at training camp this year matters a lot, but if the Steelers can succeed in that, their offense has a chance at becoming one of the best in the NFL.