With Ben Roethlisberger returning as Pittsburgh’s starting quarterback for the 2021 season, it’s worth examining his strengths and weaknesses at this stage of his career and considering how new coordinator Matt Canada might reshape the offense to accommodate them.
There’s no doubt Roethlisberger will be motivated to erase the memory of his play down the stretch last season, particularly the humiliating playoff defeat to Cleveland in which he threw four interceptions. Yet, at age 39, he is nowhere near the player he once was. And the Steelers, despite a defense that remains championship-caliber, are a team in transition on offense. By the time they take the field in September, they will have three or four new starters, a new line coach, a new quarterbacks coach and a new coordinator. Given all of that change, it’s difficult to predict what the offense might look and to what degree Canada will build it around his quarterback.
Canada can begin by answering some fundamental questions about Roethlisberger. What does he do best at this point in his career? And where does he struggle? Let’s take a look.
Strength: Reading Coverage
One of the benefits of having Roethlisberger at quarterback is his high football IQ. Few players in the league have seen as much from opposing defenses. In particular, Roethlisberger’s ability to recognize coverage and to know where to go with the football is masterful.
Take this play from the Steelers’ comeback win against Indianapolis in December. The Colts align in a two-high shell with pressed corners, suggesting cover-2. But as Roethlisberger begins his cadence, they walk the boundary safety down and rotate the field safety to the deep middle. Roethlisberger immediately recognizes cover-1. The inclination here is to throw to one of the crossing routes since crossers force one-on-one defenders to run against leverage. But, because the running back stays in to help with protection, Roethlisberger knows there will be a linebacker waiting to disrupt them. Instead, he throws the skinny post to Chase Claypool:
From this angle, you can see how Roethlisberger looks off the safety, who appears late in the GIF from the right of the screen. Knowing pre-snap he’s throwing to Claypool, Roethlisberger smartly moves the safety with his eyes to open up enough room outside the hash in which to fit his throw:
Here’s another great read from the early-season game against Philadelphia. The Steelers align in a bunch to the field, which forces the Eagles to drop their corner into a force position to defend the run. The compressed alignment of the corner, coupled with all of the grass the Steelers have to work with, tells Roethlisberger he can be aggressive. He targets an out-and-up to Claypool, figuring the safety will not be able to help from the opposite hash:
He’s right. This is a great decision and a great throw. A quarterback with a lesser football IQ would have likely taken the safe play and chosen one of the intermediate routes. Roethlisberger’s recognition of the situation allowed the Steelers to create a big play.
Roethlisberger struggles mightily as an RPO quarterback. The RPO, or run-pass option, gives the quarterback a choice whether to hand the football to a running back or throw it to a receiver based on his read of a key defender (usually a second-level player like a linebacker or box safety). Young quarterbacks begin running RPOs in high school and are well-trained on their reads and ball-handling skills by the time they reach the NFL. Old-timers like Roethlisberger? Not so much.
The thing I’ve noticed about Roethlisberger when tasked with executing an RPO is that he doesn’t read his key defender. Instead, he pre-determines whether to throw the ball or hand it off. Take this play from the game at Cincinnati in week fourteen. The Steelers run a trap RPO with right guard David DeCastro pulling and kicking out the defensive end to his left. On the back-side of the play, Juju Smith-Schuster runs a slant into the alley. Roethlisberger is supposed to read the alley as he takes the snap. If it’s clean, he should throw to Smith-Schuster. If not, he should hand the ball to running back Anthony McFarland to run the trap.
Clearly, the alley is not clean. That’s because Cincinnati is playing man-coverage, which is an effective deterrent against the RPO. RPOs are best when the run-action moves a zone defender and the quarterback throws into the area the defender has voided. This does not apply against man coverage, since defenders are locked on to receivers no matter what happens inside. Still, Roethlisberger jams this throw in to Smith-Schuster despite tight coverage. The pass is complete for a short gain, but it’s a bad read:
From this angle, we can see why. There’s no read involved. Roethlisberger takes a quick peak into the alley prior to the snap and pre-determines his decision. Watch his head as he catches the snap and fakes to McFarland. His eyes are down the entire way. He’s not reading the alley because he’s decided pre-snap to throw the slant.
Roethlisberger seems equally uncomfortable executing play-action concepts. He attempted just 48 play-action passes in 2020 and threw for just 234 yards on those attempts. Both figures ranked last in the NFL among starting quarterbacks. By contrast, Buffalo’s Josh Allen had 1,501 play-action passing yards and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan had 1,432. While Pittsburgh’s run game is weak, Buffalo and Atlanta’s are not much better (both teams ranked in the league’s bottom-third in rushing). A great rushing attack is not necessary for effective play-action.
Roethlisberger’s dislike of play-action stems from his discomfort in taking his eyes off of coverage in order to fake to the back. His preference is to be in the shotgun, away from the rush, and to run down the play-clock so he can get a good look at the defense. With play-action, he has to look away then pick up their movements and rotations mid-play. This makes him uncomfortable.
On this play from the game at Cincinnati, Roethlisberger delivers a play-fake and misses Claypool coming open on a post route. Instead, he targets a well-covered Eric Ebron. Claypool’s frustration is evident as he throws his hands up at the end of the play (don’t show up your quarterback, young man). Still, Roethlisberger’s bad read cost the Steelers a shot at six points.
From this angle, you can see how Roethlisberger failed to recognize the safety’s early commitment to Ebron. It feels like Roethlisberger never picked him up off of the play-fake, leading him to stare down Ebron and draw the safety in that direction. Had Roethlisberger located the safety and looked him off, he had a big-play opportunity to Claypool:
It will be interesting to see how much play-action is integrated into the new offense. Play-action has been a Canada staple no matter where he’s gone. With Roethlisberger at quarterback, he may have to temper its use.
Strength: “Arm talent”
I put “arm talent” in quotes because it’s become one of those pundit terms that is vague enough to sound smart without defining much. To me, “arm talent” means the combination of strength and touch, force and nuance that allows a quarterback to make just about any throw.
While Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are the gold standard for arm talent in today’s NFL, Roethlisberger remains, at age 39, better-than-average. Though he struggled on deep throws in 2020 (his QBR on passes of 20+ yards was one of the worst in the league), his issues often emanated from matters of timing and, as we shall see, mechanics. His arm, surgically-repaired as it may be, is still a weapon.
Watch this pass from the game in Jacksonville last October. Roethlisberger inserts it between a corner and a near-hash safety forty yards down the field. NFL safeties are trained to defend these types of throws, especially from this distance. This is not a poor job or a particularly late reaction from the safety. It’s just a dart from Roethlisberger.
Then there’s this one from the game against the Colts. This is one of my favorite throws from Roethlisberger in 2020. Watch him pump fake to hold the safety to his left, allowing Smith-Schuster to sneak behind him, then execute the throw with the perfect amount of touch and drive to get it into a tiny window in the end zone:
While Roethlisberger’s 2019 elbow surgery created consternation, his performance last season showed his arm was fine. He can still make the big-boy throws required of an NFL quarterback.
When it comes to fundamentals, however, Roethlisberger is a victim of past practice. He was never a particularly sound technician. Rather, his natural ability was so great he often got away with not having proper footwork or good mechanics. Whether throwing with defenders draped on him or extending a play, he seemed to make the impossible look routine. Consider this gem from a few seasons ago in Denver, where he hit Smith-Schuster in stride for a 97 yard touchdown despite throwing off his back foot with a defender in his face:
Roethlisberger can still make elite throws but not at the expense of good mechanics. We saw this at Cincinnati last season, when the Steelers opened the game with a shot-play to James Washington. Washington gained a step on the corner as he accelerated but the throw was short and he had to slow down, allowing the defender to break it up:
From this angle, you can see how, by failing to set his feet and throwing across his body, Roethlisberger couldn’t locate the ball the way he needed to. Had he pulled up at the hash, planted his back foot and stepped into the throw, he would have been able to drive it better.
Here’s another example, from the week fifteen game at Buffalo. Roethlisberger initially looks left then comes back to his right and throws an in-cut to Diontae Johnson. Roethlisberger actually steps away from Johnson with his lead foot, probably to avoid getting hit. The ball floats as a result and is almost intercepted:
From this still photo, you can see two things. First, that Roethlisberger has plenty of room to his left to slide away from the pressure and extend the play. He does not. Second, that his left foot in is no position to make a throw in Johnson’s direction. Roethlisberger cannot get away with throws like these anymore. He must be more technically-sound to avoid mistakes.
It’s fair to question whether some of Roethlisberger’s mechanical issues are the result of his desire to not get hit or injured. He doesn’t move around the way he used to, and when he does it’s generally to remove himself from harm’s way. I’m not questioning his toughness. Few quarterbacks have been as tough as Roethlisberger over the years. But, at this stage of his career, he seems less willing to immerse himself in the fray. While that’s understandable, it can also be detrimental to his play. How Canada remedies this will be interesting to watch.
Strength: “Dude Quality”
Former NFL quarterback-turned-analyst Trent Dilfer coined an interesting phrase to describe the intangibles a quarterback must possess. The phrase is “Dude Quality,” and in Dilfer’s estimation, all the best signal-callers have it.
“Dude Quality” is not a measurable and cannot be mapped. Rather, it is an attitude, a presence and a sense of confidence a quarterback conveys that attracts others to him and assures them he will get the job done. Dilfer likens “DQ” to the swagger a fighter pilot must possess. Like that pilot, a quarterback must be in complete control of the situation. He must be a leader of men and cannot show weakness.
Few quarterbacks in the league have the “DQ” Roethlisberger possesses. With three Super Bowl appearances, two rings and a litany of team records at the position, Roethlisberger is the unquestioned leader of the offense. While his playing skills have diminished, the respect his teammates have for him has not. That still matters in the locker room and in the huddle.
While I have advocated for giving Mason Rudolph an opportunity to establish himself as the next potential franchise quarterback in Pittsburgh, Rudolph by no means commands Roethlisberger’s sense of gravitas. With Roethlisberger, Canada will have the luxury of building his offense around a quarterback who is an established leader. That will make his job easier.
The success or failure of the offense won’t fall squarely on Roethlisberger’s shoulders. Everyone in the organization seems to acknowledge the Steelers must upgrade their offensive line and build a better running game to be successful. Peyton Manning and John Elway found success in the late stages of their careers as game-managers with solid rushing attacks and great defenses. If Pittsburgh can do the former, the latter should hold.
Roethlisberger may not yet be a “game manager” as a QB. But it’s clear he can’t will the team to victory on a consistent basis anymore. Building an offense in that sweet spot between what he does well and where he struggles will be crucial to Pittsburgh’s success in 2021.