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Steelers 2020 Review, Week 12: The Real Ben Roethlisberger stands up

The Ravens showed the Steelers the keys to maximizing Ben Roethlisberger’s last seasons.

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

Ben Roethlisberger has a history of great games against the Baltimore Ravens, and the Ravens know Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers well. In Week 12 of 2020, that made them the perfect team to exploit the weaknesses in the Steelers offense and reveal what Ben Roethlisberger has left as a quarterback.

1st quarter, 12:02. Watch the Steelers offensive line.

The Ravens come with a simple four-man rush, but David DeCastro is driven straight back into his quarterback and Ben throws with a defender in his face. If you watch the pass defenders you can see the Ravens had an idea what they would be facing on this play. To the top you can see the drag route draws a shove from a linebacker and the corner drops into zone. To the bottom Marcus Peters also heads into a deep zone, and he’s able to break up the throw to Chase Claypool because of it. The pressure on the quarterback forces a quicker throw, and Roethlisberger never sees JuJu Smith-Schuster breaking open over the middle.

1st quarter, 11:57. Check out the Ravens bunched up on the Steelers left side of the line (up on the screen)

The Ravens run a very Raven blitz here, but the key is the outside linebacker who drops and waits for the drag route. They know that route is coming, and they know it is Roethlisberger’s hot route, by making sure they have a linebacker to physically interfere with the route, they take that hot route away.

Check out this angle.

Roethlisberger sees the blitz coming, turns to go to his hot route, but it isn’t there. So he goes to Eric Ebron, but he’s hit as he throws. For his part, center J.C. Hassenauer doesn’t see the blitz, and ends up blocking no one while the Ravens get two blitzers facing Benny Snell for a big hit on the Steelers most important player.

1st quarter, 8:32. Ben Roethlisberger is the quarterback.

After a fumble recovery gives the Steelers offense fantastic field position, they run this play. This is 22 personnel, the trips to the top is Vance McDonald (on the line), Derek Watt (outside) and Benny Snell (back). To the bottom of the screen is Eric Ebron and Chase Claypool. The play works to the top, except that Benny Snell slips when he tries to make his cut, and as Ben Roethlisberger tries to evade the defense, only Chase Claypool is running to help his quarterback, and it’s an ill advised chuck for an interception.

This kind of awful execution is rampant around Roethlisberger as the season goes on, Randy Fichtner’s offense was predictable, his empty set passes were cute, but cute isn’t a good thing in football. Add in the struggles of J.C. Hassenauer and mid-season David DeCastro and the Steelers offense was a nightmare.

1st quarter, 0:12. Eric Ebron is on the line to the top of the Screen, Anthony McFarland is behind him.

This play shows a few changes that pay off. First, Eric Ebron isn’t lined up in-line, he’s out wide. Benny Snell has been replaced by Anthony McFarland, a much better route runner. The result is a nice out route and a broken tackle for a first down. Notice the drag route and how there’s no linebacker interfering with it, and notice the Steelers empty set formation.

2nd quarter, 14:23. Eric Ebron is second from the bottom of the screen.

Empty set again, Anthony McFarland out wide again with Eric Ebron. This time it’s just Eric Ebron beating a cornerback with his size and strength for a big gain. Also watch the blocking, with just four rushers, David DeCastro and J.C. Hassenauer double team a defensive tackle and Roethlisberger makes the throw without getting touched.

2nd quarter, 7:25. Ben Roethlisberger is the quarterback.

Not so lucky this time. A well-timed blitz catches Roethlisberger off-guard and he’s just able to get the ball out before he takes the hit. The pass is straight into the grass and incomplete. The blitzer hits Roethlisberger 2 seconds after the snap.

2nd quarter, 7:21. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Look at that pocket. Ben throws this ball about 2.7 seconds after the snap, and it’s a 22 yard gain. You should be picking up on a trend here. It also shouldn’t shock anyone that the offensive line is the foundation of success for any offense.

But you also need to notice how going empty set changes the defense and takes away a lot of the linebacker tricks Steeler opponents were using to thwart Randy Fichtner’s offense.

2nd quarter, 6:41. Ray-Ray McCloud is the slot receiver to the top of the screen.

Look at the spacing on this play. four vertical routes drives almost everyone back while Ray-Ray McCloud comes across on a drag route. Solid gain on the play because the Ravens had very few players in the middle of the field to start, due to the spread out empty set, and the vertical routes gave McCloud a 1v1 that he won with speed and a nice throw from his quarterback.

2nd quarter, 6:06. Benny Snell is the running back.

This play and the previous two were part of the no-huddle offense Ben Roethlisberger runs. Notice that with Snell in the backfield, the middle linebacker takes the drag route. Now look at the other routes from the top of the formation. Those splitting deeper routes drive the linebacker on that side back, as the middle back is defending the drag. That leaves a nice big hole for Benny Snell to slip out, and time to catch the ball, turn and accelerate away from the defense for a nice gain.

Ben Roethlisberger’s offense did a better job of stretching the defense and exploiting gaps that stretching opened up and in no huddle also purposefully attacked the defense for how it adjusted to the Steelers offense. It’s a very Bruce Arians-esque offense when Roethlisberger takes over.

When the blocking held up, it worked really well, at least for most of the field.

2nd quarter, 4:36. Watch the Ravens defense to the bottom of the screen.

The weakness with Arians’ offense in Pittsburgh was in the red zone. You can see it show up here as well. Roethlisberger isn’t a threat to run at all, and on second and goal from the 8 yard line, the Steelers awful run game is no threat either. The Ravens rush three and use 8 defenders to cover ten yards of field.

Look at the spacing, there are defenders everywhere, there’s no good options.

3rd quarter, 14:06. Chase Claypool is the receiver farthest to the top of the screen, Diontae Johnson to the bottom.

Getting back to the offensive line, when the quarterback can’t trust that he’ll have a pocket for more than 2 seconds (sometimes not even getting 2 seconds) you get plays like this. Roethlisberger sees the blitz and just takes the quick pass to Diontae Johnson for a 5 yard gain on a not-easy catch. If you look at the blocking, he didn’t have to rush, but if you’ve paid attention this film room you know he can’t trust his blockers to pick up that blitz, even though they do it this time. Ben Roethlisberger is not young, and he can’t take hits like he used too. Steeler fans are not used to a quarterback that throws balls away to avoid taking hits, and Ben Roethlisberger still won’t throw balls away very often, instead you get this.

If he has more faith in his blockers, Chase Claypool to the top of the screen is a much better option. In week 16, with Pouncey and Dotson playing, he grew more confident in his pocket and made those better throws, but when Pouncey was out, it wasn’t good.

4th quarter, 14:37. JuJu Smith-Schuster is third from the top of the screen.

I wanted to show this play, because it set up the only offensive touchdown of the week. This is what it takes to have success with an offense that has to get the ball out in under 2.5 seconds. You need a receiver to catch a ball, meet a defender two yards past the line of scrimmage and gain 6 more yards himself. You need to set up 2nd and 2 at the 4 yard line so the offense can actually try to run the ball and keep the defense honest.

4th quarter, 13:23. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.

After picking up the first down, the Steelers have the Ravens desperate and gambling to create a negative play. The blitz gets pressure to Roethlisberger, but look at how incredibly fast he gets the ball out here. He has two seconds to make this play, and he does it.

Ben Roethlisberger had a terrible stretch of games when J.C. Hassenauer was forced into the lineup. The offense the team started the season with was solved and discarded, the team was largely relying on Ben Roethlisberger to run the offense after Fichtner’s game plan again showed itself to be inadequate, and he had a line that on any given play would fail to give him more than 2 seconds to throw the ball.

It’s hard to succeed in that setting. When Ben Roethlisberger could rely on having more than 2.5 seconds to throw the ball, the Steelers were a much better offense, even with a game plan that stunk and no run game. If the Steelers can give Ben Roethlisberger a better designed offense, with a better game plan each week, and maybe an offensive line that can drive a run game and also give him a consistently reasonable time to throw the ball, the Steelers will be in good hands.

In another Covid-19 affected off-season, with no starting caliber runners on the team and holes on the offensive line and no room under the one-year shrunk cap, that “if” isn’t a small one.