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Steelers Vertex: Breaking down Ben Roethlisberger’s passes against the Lions

The Steelers quarterback saw his first action of the 2021 NFL preseason.

Detroit Lions v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

As the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t hold back any of their available starters against the Detroit Lions in Week 2 of the preseason. With Ben Roethlisberger seeing his first action of the 2021 season, let’s take a look at the distribution of his pass attempts from Saturday night.

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.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Ben Roethlisberger completed 8 of 10 passes on Saturday night for 137 yards and two touchdowns. Roethlisberger ended the night with a perfect quarterback rating of 158.3 after exiting the game playing 16 snaps on three drives.

When looking at the breakdown of each pass, Roethlisberger threw eight short passes and two deep passes. Roethlisberger was seven for eight on short passes with 94 yards and two touchdowns while he was one for two on deep passes with 43 yards.

Breaking the field into thirds, Roethlisberger attacked the middle of the field more than any other area. Throwing the ball to the left, Roethlisberger completed one of two passes for 11 yards as both were deemed to be short passes as there was no deep attempt to the left side of the formation. When looking at the right side, Roethlisberger was two of three for 11 yards (one completion for 3 yards and another completion for 8 yards). While he completed both of his short passes, Roethlisberger failed to connect with Eric Ebron on a pass to the deep right on the first drive.

When attacking the middle of the field, Roethlisberger was five for five with 105 yards and two touchdowns. Roethlisberger had completions of 7 yards and 46 yards (Najee Harris’ catch and run) to the short middle as well as the 11 yard and 8 yard touchdowns to Pat Freiermuth. Roethlisberger also had the 43 yard connection to Diontae Johnson in what was considered the deep middle but was on the verge of being to the right side of the formation.

On the night, Roethlisberger’s completion for the least amount of yards was a 3-yard gain on the Steelers first official play of the night. As for the two incompletions, the one was already mentioned as the deep past Eric Ebron on Roethlisberger’s second attempt of the game while the other incompletion was behind the line of scrimmage to Najee Harris to the left side and was probably better served by not being complete.

So there are the numbers behind Ben Roethlisberger’s passes on Saturday night. How did they look on film?

The Film Line:

It was great to see Ben Roethlisberger out on the field, and great to see the numbers show he was having a good game. But then, he was having a great season last year before the offensive line fell apart and he was forced to throw the ball within 2 seconds of catching it unless he wanted to get hit every play. He wasn’t the quarterback who could evade pressure, extend the play and hit a receiver downfield anymore.

On only his second pass of the 2021 preseason, Ben Roethlisberger found a bit of that lost mojo.

First quarter, 13:36.

That looks more like a 29-year-old Roethlisberger than what you would expect of a 39-year-old quarterback.

No one wants to try and go back to the days when this was something you would see almost every drive, but knowing Ben Roethlisberger still has the ability to evade pressure and make a play is comforting with a rebuilt offensive line protecting him. The defensive back is able to get a hand on the ball and Eric Ebron isn’t able to secure it, but this play was the first sign that Ben Roethlisberger was back.

On the second drive, Steeler fans would get to see Ben throw downfield again, this time completing the pass.

First quarter, 9:52. Diontae Johnson is in front of Najee Harris to the top of the screen.

Ben Roethlisberger wasn’t happy with this pass, it hung in the air a bit too long, and if the free safety had located the ball, he would have had a shot at contesting the catch. The placement was perfect, you just want the ball to get there a bit faster so Johnson doesn’t have to slow down. Not bad for his 4th pass of this season.

That play flipped the field, and after a few more gains to get in the redzone, Roethlisberger and Pat Freiermuth unleashed a phenomenal play to cap the drive with a touchdown.

First quarter, 6:19. Pat Freiermuth is the tight end to the top of the screen.

Ben Roethlisberger fakes out the entire defense, and the cameraman with a wicked pump fake before unleashing a touchdown throw to Pat Freiermuth.

Except that isn’t what happened. This is actually a case of Roethlisberger and Freiermuth not having their “WIFI” fully installed, and Ben Roethlisberger making the play anyway. Watch below.

That’s not a pump fake, that’s a quarterback starting to throw a ball only to stop that throw partway in. Ben Roethlisberger is talented enough that he starts his throwing motion in time with the play design, but is still able to decide whether to throw the ball or not after starting to throw. If you go back to the original view, you will see Freiermuth stall his route before breaking inside, that delay isn’t expected by Roethlisberger, who is ready to put that ball in Freiermuth’s chest as he makes the cut. When Freiermuth delays his cut by a fraction of a second, Roethlisberger is able to stop the throw, and then throw it for real after Freiermuth makes his cut.

If you remember 2020 Roethlisberger throwing a touchdown that hit Diontae Johnson’s hands as he cut, you get what Roethlisberger was planning here. Freiermuth wasn’t on the same wavelength as his quarterback, and it didn’t matter. They were able to recover and make a harder play and still score the touchdown.

Here’s two images from the play that will make it clear, first the point where Ben Roethlisberger starts to throw the ball to Pat Freiermuth.

Freiermuth is at the far left of the screen, he’s just passed the defender on the 5 yard line, the safety (off camera) has outside leverage on Freiermuth. The second Freiermuth turns to the middle he’s open, and the ball is going to be there.

Except Freiermuth’s cut is delayed by a juke move:

Here Roethlisberger is turning down the throw as he sees his tight end isn’t cutting yet. If Ben Roethlisberger didn’t have the ability to do this, the ball would be in the air at this point, and it would have sailed past Freiermuth before he turned to look for it, and instead of a touchdown, we would have seen a play where the quarterback and his young tight end weren’t on the same page. As it was, Ben Roethlisberger was able to stop his throw, adjust and complete the play for a touchdown anyway.

Not too shabby.

Roethlisberger and Freiermuth got on the same page on the next drive to put a second touchdown on the board for the Steelers.

First quarter, 3:00.

Ben Roethlisberger’s last pass of the game was a beauty, a laser to where only his tight end could catch it. A really nice route and catch by Pat Freiermuth on the play as well.

The Point:

Ben Roethlisberger didn’t just walk back on to Heinz Field, he walked back the clock and looked like the player we were used to before his ailing arm limited him in 2019 and 2020. The Ben Roethlisberger we saw against the Lions wasn’t just following the offense and taking what the defense gave him, he was making plays both on-time and off-script. As his comfort level in Matt Canada’s offense and with his receivers and blockers grows he will perform even better.

Gone is the Ben Roethlisberger of late 2020, the one that rarely attacked the middle of the field and struggled to convert deep throws in a predictable offense with a banged up line. Whatever the percentage you want to credit his health, the talent around him, and the offensive game plan, the important thing is that the Steelers make the most of their quarterback’s return while this level of play holds up.