Looks like the old man isn’t quite finished, after all.
Just a day after reports surfaced that Ben Roethlisberger had informed former teammates and people within the organization that this would be his last year with the Steelers, the veteran quarterback authored a vintage performance to lead a comeback win over the Baltimore Ravens that breathed life into both Pittsburgh’s season and what remains of Roethlisberger’s career.
The 20-19 win wasn’t decided until quarterback Lamar Jackson’s two-point conversion pass fluttered to the Heinz Field turf after tight end Mark Andrews came agonizingly close to catching it following a Baltimore touchdown with 12 seconds remaining. It added another thrilling chapter to the Baltimore-Pittsburgh rivalry, while also marking Roethlisberger’s best game of the season. His numbers (21-31 for 236 yards, 2 TDs, 0 INTs, 111.8 rating) were good. His poise and command of the game in the 4th quarter, when the Steelers scored 17 of their 20 points, was fantastic. Roethlisberger reached into the proverbial time machine to summon a performance that more closely resembled his 2011 self than the player we’ve seen for much of 2021. In doing so, he provided the Steelers a crucial victory and some much-needed momentum heading into a short week with a Thursday night contest at Minnesota.
Here’s a look at Roethlisberger’s stellar game, and how he helped conquer the Ravens.
With 1:48 remaining in the first half, the Steelers took possession following a Baltimore punt at their own 13. To that point, they had run 10 plays on offense and gained one first down. They had possessed the football for just over five minutes, compared to nearly 23 minutes of possession time for Baltimore. Miraculously, the Ravens led just 7-0.
Roethlisberger got the drive off to a good start with a nice back-shoulder throw on an RPO to Chase Claypool. His decision to throw here was the product of some simple math at the line of scrimmage. With seven Baltimore defenders in the box against six Pittsburgh blockers, he took the one-on-one outside rather than running the ball into a numerical disadvantage. He put the throw in a perfect spot where Claypool could use his 6’4” frame to shield the defender. Claypool did his part by showing good athleticism to secure the catch:
A few plays later, with the ball near midfield, Roethlisberger showed how, while his body isn’t as capable as it once was, the cerebral part of his game remains sharp.
The Ravens stacked the line in an “amoeba” look, meaning players did not get into set stances but instead milled around in an undefined structure prior to the snap. The challenge for Roethlisberger was to diagnose which Baltimore players were rushing and which were dropping into coverage. At the snap, Roethlisberger saw the defenders to his right bail, which meant pressure would come from his left. He gained enough depth in his drop to buy space, then threw crisply in the left flat to tight end Pat Freiermuth, who had run a delay route after chipping the edge rusher:
While this play gained just five yards, it demonstrated a huge difference between Roethlisberger and his counterpart at quarterback. Jackson’s athleticism is off the charts, and he gave the Steelers fits at times with his ability to escape the pocket and improvise. However, Jackson also took seven sacks and on many occasions, wasted opportunities for completions by not recognizing open receivers and holding the ball too long. Roethlisberger, while possessing none of Jackson’s mobility, compensated on Sunday with his smarts. By quickly diagnosing Baltimore’s defensive structures and knowing where to go with the football, he kept Pittsburgh’s offense on the field at crucial times.
Roethlisberger’s best play of the night came later in the drive on a throw that wasn’t even complete. On 1st and 10 from the +35, with Baltimore again in the amoeba look, Roethlisberger stood tall in the pocket as the rush closed in and threw a perfect ball to Diontae Johnson on a post route. What made this throw remarkable was that Baltimore showed a pre-snap two-high look, which is designed to take away throws to the post. Roethlisberger knew, however, that the Ravens had been showing a lot of two-high but dropping a safety into a robber look. The Steelers had, to that point, run nothing deep into the middle of the field, opting for short and intermediate routes instead. With pressure coming, Roethlisberger correctly anticipated the safeties would be sitting on the shallow routes and not bailing to protect the post. When they did just that, Johnson ran by them and Roethlisberger laid a beautiful throw into his outstretched arms. Johnson promptly dropped it:
On 3rd and 10, it was Claypool’s turn to let Roethlisberger down. The Ravens put nine players at the line of scrimmage, leaving only the left corner, who was singled up on Claypool, and the safety, aligned 15 yards deep, at the second level:
Roethlisberger saw the soft alignment of the corner and, at the snap, looked immediately at Claypool. He was expecting some sort of “hot” adjustment, likely for Claypool to run a hitch or a slant. But Claypool, despite the corner’s alignment, went vertical. That forced Roethlisberger to come off of him and find a second option. With Baltimore bringing the house, he didn’t have time. Roethlisberger was hit as he threw and the ball batted around like a balloon before graciously falling to the turf:
These two plays typified what we have seen from the receivers for much of the season. They are occasionally spectacular but can also be careless and sloppy, particularly in their mental approach. Far too often this year, receivers have lined up incorrectly, failed to make proper sight-adjustments and, inexplicably, jumped off-sides. They are not disciplined in the way Roethlisberger would like to them be. When he returned to the sideline after Claypool’s gaffe, he let receiver’s coach Ike Hilliard know about it:
Still, the Steelers garnered a field goal from Chris Boswell to end the drive, getting them on the scoreboard and providing some momentum heading into the second half.
Pittsburgh moved the ball on their first two drives in the 3rd quarter but stalled each time. Then, on a pivotal 3rd and 1 early in the 4th, Roethlisberger found Claypool off of play-action for a catch-and-run of 40 yards:
It was a great play-call from coordinator Matt Canada. Twice earlier in the game, the Steelers had been stopped on 3rd and short. The first time, they’d run unsuccessfully into an eight-man front. The second time, they’d lobbed a jump ball up the sideline to Claypool. Neither call invoked much imagination. Here, though, with Canada anticipating an aggressive scheme, he condensed the formation to bring Claypool towards the middle of the field, then had him run away from the leverage of the corner and behind the linebackers. Baltimore’s scheme was so aggressive that Claypool, who caught the ball just fourteen yards past the line of scrimmage, cleared the free safety, who had come down hard on the run-fake. Roethlisberger, who is not particularly adept executing play-action, came up big by putting the ball in a spot where Claypool could run after the catch.
On the following play, Canada dialed up this beauty. With Baltimore still playing their safeties low, he went play-action again. This time he had Roethlisberger, after faking to Najee Harris, execute a half-roll to his right. The receivers to that side, Johnson and Ray-Ray McCloud, ran a post-wheel combination. This forced the Baltimore defenders, Anthony Averett (23) and Marlon Humphrey (44), to either stay in man-coverage and run through the clutter created by the route combo or to switch responsibilities, with Averett passing off Johnson’s post and picking up McCloud on the wheel. Averett anticipated a switch and released Johnson, but Humphrey chased McCloud. That miscommunication freed up the post, and Johnson broke wide open. Roethlisberger, after using a sneaky pump-fake to freeze the unblocked edge-rusher, hit him for an easy six:
Chris Boswell uncharacteristically missed the extra point, and the Steelers trailed 10-9. The teams exchanged field goals on the next two possessions, and when the Steelers got the ball back with 6:21 to play, it was 13-12. They quickly faced another 3rd and short, this one from the -39.
Baltimore returned to its amoeba look, once again crowding the ball and challenging Roethlisberger to execute against pressure. Once again, he was up to the task. This time, with the blitz coming from his right, he found Zach Gentry, working off of clear-out routes from McCloud and Claypool, in the flat. Gentry caught the ball, squared up and made a nice cut to get the necessary yardage to move the chains:
The Steelers then proceeded to do something shocking: they pounded the football down the field between the tackles. Working largely behind rookie left tackle Dan Moore Jr. and replacement left guard John Leglue, Harris and Benny Snell combined for 29 yards on 4 carries to move into the red zone.
That set up 3rd and goal from the 5, where, facing man-coverage, Canada went back to the wheel concept, only this time with a wrinkle. A traditional wheel brings the outside receiver inside and the inside receiver out. The Steelers feigned that look, sending Freiermuth, who was aligned in the left slot, towards the back pylon and Johnson, who was split wide, on a slant. This drew an aggressive response from Humphrey, who was assigned to Johnson. Rather than continue inside, though, Johnson put on the brakes and whipped back to the boundary, where he beat Humphrey soundly. Roethlisberger put his throw on the money and Johnson dove across the goal-line for the go-ahead score:
The Steelers worked another Johnson-Freiermuth combo on the ensuing two-point play. Here, Johnson released vertically and ran interference for Freiermuth, who came underneath him into the flat to catch a deftly-thrown ball from Roethlisberger that had just enough air on it to clear linebacker Patrick Queen (6):
From there, all the Steelers had to do was hold on for dear life as Jackson tried to bring Baltimore back with some heroics of his own. He almost did it. Fortunately, almost doesn’t count.
Many people deserve credit for the victory. T.J. Watt, who had 3.5 sacks and disrupted Jackson just enough to force an errant throw on Baltimore’s two-point play. Canada, who rebounded from a slow start to call a great 4th quarter. Johnson, whose route on the winning TD served as further proof that he can be, as Roethlisberger says, “uncoverable.” And the much-maligned offensive line, which yielded just one sack and opened run lanes on Pittsburgh’s final drive.
The night, though, belonged to Roethlisberger, who seemed in his element in a close, hard-fought game against the Ravens. While my greatest memory of him will always be of the drive to beat Arizona in Super Bowl 43, with the improbable throw to Santonio Holmes at the end, the thoughts that most typify his career involve the Ravens. So many great games, so many late heroics. If Sunday’s contest was indeed Roethlisberger’s last home game against Baltimore, he ended in appropriate fashion. He is no longer capable of authoring these types of performances regularly. But for one night, against the fiercest of rivals, in a game the Steelers desperately needed, he reminded everyone of the player he can be.