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The 4th-down play that may define the Steelers’ 2021 season

Needing a play on 4th and 10, the Steelers hit Najee Harris for a short gain. This one play may define the entire season.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

It could be worse, I suppose. We could all be Detroit Lions fans.

The Lions lost in excruciating fashion to the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, yielding a fourth and 19 conversion in the final :30 before Justin Tucker kicked an NFL record 66-yard field goal on the final play to give the Ravens an improbable 17-16 victory.

While that sort of gut punch is devastating, the blows the Steelers received in their 24-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals had an entirely different effect. Lions fans had plenty to be proud of as their team fought to the brink of an upset over the heavily-favored Ravens. The Steelers, on the other hand, looked like a shell of the team that opened the season with an upset of their own in Buffalo. They were banged up before the game started. Once it did, the hits kept coming. They played without much energy or emotion, executed poorly, committed an array of careless penalties and were generally outplayed by the younger, faster Bengals.

This was especially true of the offense, which resembled a dead car battery for three quarters before flickering to life in the fourth. Cincinnati fell back into a soft zone and the Steelers racked up yards on dinks, dunks and the sheer will of Najee Harris. Somehow, despite being dominated, they had a puncher’s chance down 24-10 with just under four minutes to play, all of their timeouts remaining and a 1st and 10 at Cincinnati’s 11 yard line. A sack, a short pass to James Washington and an incompletion created a 4th and 10 situation. Needing a conversion or a touchdown to stay alive, the Steelers did this:

On the surface, it was a terrible play call. Why would they run a play that had no chance of gaining 10 yards? Why did they not throw the ball into the end zone? It wasn’t the call that was the problem, though. It was the execution. Specifically, the decision by the quarterback.

Here’s a closer look at the play and some thoughts on what it may mean for the Steelers.

The Call

The Steelers ran one of their staples — four verticals — out of a 3x1 look. Wide receivers Chase Claypool (split left) and James Washington (split right) stemmed inside before widening towards the pylon at the back of the end zone. Ray Ray McCloud (right slot) worked up the right hash. Tight end Pat Freiermuth crossed the field towards the left hash before heading vertically. And Harris, the brilliant young tailback, swung to the right as an outlet option for Ben Roethlisberger:

Roethlisberger’s read

Roethlisberger saw a pre-snap blitz look from the Bengals. As you can see below, Cincinnati walked seven defenders up to the line of scrimmage just prior to the snap and presented a Cover-0 look (man-to-man with no safety help) in the secondary:

Under normal circumstances, the right read against the blitz would have been to throw the outlet to Harris. This would allow Roethlisberger to beat the pressure with a quick throw and for Harris to operate one-on-one against a linebacker in space once he caught the football. On a 3rd down play in the middle of the second quarter, for example, there’s nothing wrong with this decision.

These were not normal circumstances, however. The game was over if the Steelers did not convert, and the field was too compressed for Cincinnati’s defenders to get run off far enough for Harris to make ten yards. Harris was Pittsburgh’s best player on offense on Sunday, He looks like their best player on offense, period. But there’s no way he was getting to the sticks here. Even if Roethlisberger had made the correct read (he did not), he was wrong to throw the swing.

Roethlisberger had to do one of two things, then. If the blitz did come, he had to stand in long enough to throw one of the vertical routes. While this would likely mean taking a shot, something we’ve seen him do countless times throughout his career, picking the pre-snap matchup he liked best and throwing there would have hastened his release. Had he chosen either Washington or Claypool outside, for example, he could have thrown fairly quickly and at worst gotten a 50/50 jump ball with the possibility of a pass interference call in the end zone. It would have been a far better choice than swinging the ball to Harris.

The other thing that had to cross Roethlisberger’s mind was that the Bengals would bluff the stunt and fall back into coverage, in which case he’d have plenty of time to find a target. They were either coming or they weren’t. If they were coming, he had to stand in and give one of his receivers a shot to make a play. If they weren’t, he would have time to pick the best target available. Which, as things turned out, was McCloud in the slot. You can see in the image below how McCloud has inside leverage on his man-defender. While a safety has fallen back towards the middle of the field just to McCloud’s left, he is not aggressively backpedaling. He’s squatting and reading Roethlisberger. So, had Roethlisberger hung in and held the ball, he would have had a pretty good shot at fitting a throw in over the head of the safety as McCloud broke inside to the near hash:

It would have been a tough throw but not an impossible one. It would have been a throw we’ve seen Roethlisberger make many times before.

What makes Roethlisberger’s decision to throw the swing to Harris even harder to understand is his read of the defense just after the snap. In the next photo, we see him as he’s caught the snap and started his drop. His eyes are forward, looking at the rush. He must see the blitzers falling off and only three rushers coming. With this look, it doesn’t make sense for him to hurry a throw to Harris. He should take a normal drop and go through his progression. But he doesn’t. He rushes the ball out anyway. Which, unfortunately, suggests a serious problem with his ability to play the position these days.

What does it mean?

I am not a Big Ben hater. I have a world of respect for him, for his toughness, his ability, for everything he’s done for the franchise. He is the best player to ever quarterback the Steelers and a future Hall of Famer. This is arguably indisputable.

The end comes for all athletes, however. We’ve seen Roethlisberger’s skills dissipate for a few seasons now. His accuracy and mobility are not what they once were. His downfield throwing ability has diminished too. But he has, for the most part, retained his masterful ability to diagnose defenses.

Or has he? We all know how tough Roethlisberger has been throughout his career. He’s taken some brutal shots over the years and played through a litany of injuries. Now, though, he seems reticent about taking the punishment. So reticent, in fact, that he is seeing things that aren’t there. I watched this play over and over and the thing that kept popping into my head was the comment Sam Darnold made when he was mic’d up for a game against New England during his rookie season with the Jets. “I’m seeing ghosts,” Darnold said. What shook people about the comment was how rattled it made Darnold seem. Quarterbacks can be fooled by defenses but rarely to the point they begin doubting themselves. Once that doubt creeps in, and their confidence wanes, serious trouble ensues.

I don’t know if Roethlisberger is “seeing ghosts.” I suspect, however, that the knowledge that his body can no longer take the pounding it once did, and that the line behind which he’s playing is so porous that a serious hit must always seem imminent, is enough to change the way he plays the position. Either Roethlisberger got fooled on that 4th down and made a bad read or he didn’t get fooled and dumped the ball to Harris anyway. The former is a bad sign. The latter is potentially fatal.

There’s no guarantee a touchdown in that situation would have saved the day for the Steelers. And Roethlisberger’s decision there may be as much about the line, or about injuries, or about an ascending Cincinnati defense that has played well for three straight weeks now, as it is about the state of the quarterback. But, if we’re being honest, it’s probably about Big Ben. He has been so great for so long. He’s just not anymore. The question we must ask now is this: having bet so much that Roethlisberger has one more Super Bowl run in him, can the Steelers avoid a total collapse when it turns out he doesn’t?