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Steelers Vertex: Examining the value of Ben Roethlisberger

With difficult personnel decisions coming for the Steelers, it’s time to break down if a player’s contributions match the financial implications.

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

Since one of the most pressing issues facing the Steelers this offseason is how to handle the contracts of a number of players with large salary cap hits, we’re going to take this opportunity to break down the player statistics, salary cap implications, and play on the field to help determine what would be in the Steelers’ best interest. This will be the focus on our Steelers Vertex series over the next several weeks.

Starting off with the obvious choice of Ben Roethlisberger to kick things off, we will leave it up to YOU, the readers, to help determine which player we will look at next. For now, it will be players under contract for the 2021 season but the Steelers will need to consider if they are going to retain, extend, or release.

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.

As stated above, the topic at hand this week is looking at Ben Roethlisberger and making a case for if the Steelers should have him play out the rest of his contract, work a contract extension, or release him.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

When it comes to the 2020 season, Ben Roethlisberger came off of elbow surgery and led the Steelers to a franchise-best 11-game winning streak to start the season. While things were riding high for the Steelers, they were plenty of concerns even as the Steelers were winning games. Unfortunately, those concerns caught up with them as the season finished up.

Roethlisberger threw for 33 regular-season touchdowns in 2020 which was only one behind his career best of 34 in 2018. Appearing in one less game, Roethlisberger would have possibly hit a career high in this department had he played the final game of the regular season. Roethlisberger also had 10 interceptions on the season which was the fewest he had thrown since 2014 with the exception of his game and a half played in 2019. Roethlisberger did had six interceptions in a five-game stretch going from Week 11 to Week 15. The only game Roethlisberger did not have an interception since Week 10 was the Steelers victory in Week 16 over the Indianapolis Colts. Unfortunately, Roethlisberger added four interceptions in the Steelers Wild Card loss.

Ben Roethlisberger also finished with a 65.6 completion percentage during the regular season, which was more than 1% higher than his career average. The most concerning statistic from Roethlisberger this season was he eclipsed the 600 passing attempt mark for the third time in his career. With 608 attempts both in 2020 and in 2014, the only season in which Roethlisberger had more was in 2018 when he threw 675 passes. To put this number in perspective, Roethlisberger’s first NFL season in which he started all 16 games was in 2008 which was the last time the Steelers won the Super Bowl. In that season, Roethlisberger had 469 pass attempts, only 77% of what he had in 2020.

When it comes to Ben Roethlisberger’s salary, he is due to earn $19 million in 2021. The way it is broken down, Roethlisberger has a $4 million base salary and a $15 million roster bonus due on the third day of the 2021 league year. The biggest knock on Roethlisberger’s salary is the $22.25 million in dead money which will count towards the 2021 salary cap regardless. Combined with his salary, Roethlisberger is due to count $41.25 million against the Steelers 2021 salary cap.

The options when it comes to Roethlisberger is for him to either retire or be released which would save the the Steelers the $19 million in salary he is due. Should Roethlisberger retire, the Steelers could attempt to regain a portion of his signing bonus since he did not finish out his contract, but this would be something uncharacteristic of the Steelers organization.

One other option would be to give Roethlisberger an extension where the $19 million number could be cut down dramatically, or even renegotiated, and spread out over several years. Whether or not Roethlisberger would play however many years he would be extended would be beside the point.

So are Roethlisberger’s statistics and salary worth keeping him around for 2021? Let’s check out the film to break down what Roethlisberger brings to the table…

The Film Line:

Ben Roethlisberger isn’t the same quarterback the Steelers had under center, 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago. He is approaching 40, and is clearly on the downturn of a Hall of Fame career. To evaluate him coming back we are going to look at three things: What he brings to the table, what he struggles with, and what he needs to succeed.

The Good

Before the 2020 season Ike Taylor told us the most valuable thing Ben Roethlisberger brings to the team is from the neck up. That held true throughout the 2020 season, and should Roethlisberger return for an 18th season in the black and gold, it’s what he will bring in 2021.

Week 5, 4th quarter, 3:04. Chase Claypool is the third receiver from the bottom of the screen.

This play sealed the Steelers 5th win of the season, and became even more famous after the game when it was revealed that Ben Roethlisberger gave Claypool an audible that he then had to explain, because it wasn’t something the rookie had learned. At that point in the season Roethlisberger had logged more playoff games than Claypool had NFL targets. Leading a young team with the ability to lean on his experience was an enormous positive.

Week 9, 4th quarter, 15:00. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the third receiver from the top.

This is a classic Ben Roethlisberger moment, he pump fakes to Eric Ebron (second from top) and it pulls defenders to Ebron, giving Smith-Schuster plenty of room in front of the safeties for the pass. Smith-Schuster does the rest, getting the ball into the end zone. At his age, Ben Roethlisberger still has a good arm and the tools to use it intelligently. Roethlisberger had some bad games later in the season, but even with those games he posted one of the lowest interception rates of his career, and he posted his best TD/INT ratio since 2012.

The Bad

Father time is undefeated, and the first thing to go with age is a players athleticism. That shows up clearly in Ben Roethlisberger’s 2020 film. A player once most known for his ability to evade pressure and break tackles is now one of the least elusive quarterbacks in the NFL.

Week 14, 3rd quarter, 10:01.

The Bills win the battle to the right side of the line, and you can see that Roethlisberger’s movement is largely just little steps and hops at this point. He backs away and braces for the hit. It isn’t just his inability to evade sacks either. Roethlisberger saw a good number of tipped passes as he doesn’t have the fluid movement inside of the pocket that he used to, and it allows defenders to interfere with his throwing motion and lanes more often.

Week 14, 3rd quarter, 5:40.

A step up and that throw is clean, but that isn’t Ben Roethlisberger at this stage of his career. We also saw that while many quarterbacks respond to getting pressure by leaving the pocket earlier, with Roethlisberger we see him start throwing quicker, throwing to his first target no matter if they are open or not, and lobbing prayers deep instead of waiting for someone to come open.

How to get the most out of Ben Roethlisberger in 2021

There’s no miracle serum that can bring back the 2010-2017 version of Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers can either cut ties with the best quarterback to ever play for the franchise, or they can do their best to set him up for success. Three key things need to happen to set Roethlisberger up for success in 2021.

1. Invest in the offensive line. A new line coach is already on the menu, but the Steelers will need to invest draft picks and money into the line to buy their quarterback more time to operate.

2. Better scheme and execution. We’ve talked a good bit about motion and play action this year, things Matt Canada was hired to bring to the offense, and I’ve talked about Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles using them.

Wild Card Game, 1st quarter, 10:53.

This play has motion and play-action. And then one deep route and the jet sweep motion man in the flat. Late in the play Benny Snell leaks awkwardly out of the pocket and Roethlisberger tries to get the ball to him as he is getting hit, and it’s the first of his four interceptions.

Look at this play, what is the right option here? Play design has to be better than this. Randy Fichtner is gone now and Matt Canada is expected to be the new offensive coordinator. This won’t be Matt Canada working with the run game, and then throwing motion into a few of Randy Fichtner’s plays. Here’s hoping he’s up to the challenge.

That brings us to the third thing that needs to happen.

3. A serious buy-in from Ben Roethlisberger. I’m not going to impugn Roethlisberger’s work ethic, he wasn’t able to throw for a good portion of the offseason, was on a limited throw count when he returned, and the 2020 offseason probably had the least practice time in NFL history. But for 2021? Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Canada need to be attached at the hip this offseason. The Steelers need Ben Roethlisberger to learn to read plays he hasn’t in the past.

Week 16, 2nd quarter, 6:35.

Motion again, and a near interception. Ben Roethlisberger sees the linebacker is going to get beat by Eric Ebron and throws the ball, completely missing the cornerback that is dropping and who ends up with a good shot at the ball.

Look late in the play at the jet motion man in the flat, and Benny Snell joining him. With the cornerback back that far, a pass to Ray-Ray McCloud has a great chance to gain good yards here with no one close to him and a lead blocker in Snell. This was on first and ten, in the first half and the Steelers are down 7. The quarterback has to understand the options and make the smart read. For Matt Canada’s offense to work, Ben Roethlisberger will need to get better at reading the field specifically for that offense. That will take time, and hopefully this offseason the Covid-19 situation will allow for that to happen.

The Point:

Ben Roethlisberger is not the quarterback he once was, but it does not mean that he can’t be the best option for the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 2021 season. The $41.25 million salary cap hit would be extremely difficult to overcome, but if the Steelers want Roethlisberger for only one season they might just have to go with it. The best bet for the Steelers would be to get their quarterback on board with their offensive scheme for next season, give him an improved offensive line, and reduce his 2021 salary cap as much as possible. If the organization can pull this off, Roethlisberger could still lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to a successful season in 2021.


Which player would you like to see broken down for next weeks Steelers Vertex? Make sure you vote in the pole below.


Which player under contract for the 2021 season would you like to see broken down for next weeks Steelers Vertex?

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