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The one part of Ben Roethlisberger’s game the Steelers need to come back

The offense and its quarterback are changing, but the team needs their HoF leader to rediscover a throw he used to make routinely

Syndication: The Enquirer Sam Greene/The Enquirer via Imagn Content Services, LLC

We talked about it last season, and we’ve talked about it this season, the Steelers are facing +1 defenders in the box a lot because teams are running single high safety defense against the Steelers a lot. For most of last year and this year, they are getting away with it because the Steelers aren’t making them pay enough for not having more defenders deep.

This has led to people claiming Roethlisberger can’t physically throw the ball far enough to exploit it. That isn’t true. He can still throw the ball far enough, there’s a different issue at hand here, and it is simply ball placement.

Ben Roethlisberger has always excelled on deep balls to the sideline, it’s been a strength of his for a long time. I’m not going to put clips of these throws in this film room, there are tons of them, you can probably think of some right off the top of your head, the 84 yard TD Roethlisberger threw to Chase Claypool in Week 2 of last season is a great example. Those passes make defenses want to put their corners outside of the Steelers deep threats to block releases to the outside. But when they did that, Roethlisberger would do this...

2015, Week 13, 3rd quarter, 0:09

Antonio Brown is the second receiver from the right.

A nice switch release here puts Antonio Brown on the outside, the corner has heavy outside leverage to keep “Tony Two-Tap” off that sideline and drive his route to the safety help. Doesn’t matter. Ben Roethlisberger drops the ball in front of Brown, splitting the defenders for a big gain.

I know, this is Antonio Brown, he and Ben Roethlisberger did insane things together against constant double and even triple coverage, it’s not fair to demand Roethlisberger do this with another receiver. I get that, I just want to show how well Ben Roethlisberger could split defenders at his best.

What about when that receiver isn’t Antonio Brown, what about when it is the 2017 version of Martavis Bryant? The one that lost his job to JuJu Smith-Schuster.

2017, Week 2, 2nd quarter, 15:00

Martavis Bryant is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

That’s 35-year old Ben Roethlisberger taking a hit and still dropping that ball where the defender has to mug Martavis Bryant to prevent the catch. Bryant blows past the safety, and with the corner outside of him and the ball leading him slightly toward the middle, there’s very little opportunity for a legal pass defense on this play.

The crazy thing? This is against 2 deep safeties. This isn’t single high safety, but the Steelers don’t care, because Roethlisberger didn’t need much space to hit these throws. Ben Roethlisberger and literally any competent deep threat were going to eat your safeties for Sunday brunch.

That’s the quarterback Steeler fans remember, that’s Hall of Fame Ben Roethlisberger. If you aren’t the best at deciphering defenses and make some bone headed throws at times, heck even if you are criticized by teammates for not being a great leader or a “film room” guy, if you can make throws like that, not much else matters. The rest of the offense opens up because those safeties know that at literally any moment that ball could be sailing downfield and your team’s fans are asking if you even know what football is.

We can all see those are great, but that’s still Todd Haley’s offense and Martavis Bryant, who was an elite deep threat anytime he wasn’t grounded for smoking pot. What about Randy Fichtner’s offense and someone a bit slower?

2018 Week 12, 3rd quarter, 10:47

JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver to the top of the screen.

You might remember that play, it was Smith-Schuster’s second 97-yard TD reception. Before we dig into it, let’s look at the pre-snap defense.

The Broncos don’t want the Steelers to get easy yards here, they want to stuff the run and smother the quick short routes that teams run when they are backed up like the Steelers are here. But when JuJu Smith-Schuster sees that switch to single-high safety, he knows that all he needs to do is win his release inside and they will have a nice gain.

And that’s what he does.

I want you to look at Smith-Schuster’s release. Look at where he is in relation to the numbers as he is passing the corner and running upfield. He’s outside the numbers. he not only wins the release inside, he keeps his lane in doing so, giving his quarterback plenty of room to place the ball inside. He catches the ball on the inside of those numbers, a good two yards inside of where he was running his route. Ben Roethlisberger leads him downfield and to the inside, and the rest is up to Smith-Schuster. Also, seriously, Roethlisberger throws this ball while off-balance and off his back foot. He made throws like this under tough circumstances.

That play is 7 games before week 2 of 2019, when Ben Roethlisberger would walk off the field and not return. Seven games before an arm injury that had bothered him for years would end his season. When Roethlisberger returned in 2020, the Steelers offensestarted out great. They were 10th in rushing through 5 games, and even after the run game fell apart, the Steelers offense was averaging 28.4 points a game through 10 games, offense, I took out the defensive scores. Then the Steelers offense really struggled against the Ravens, and when the Steelers lost to Washington, they gave credit to the Ravens for putting things on film that Washington exploited.

2020, Week 13, 1st quarter, 15:00

James Washington is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

I know Ben Roethlisberger gets hit as he throws and that pulls the ball out of bounds. But look at the release by James Washington, the defensive leverage, the single deep safety and especially, how James Washington is fighting to get to the sideline the entire route.

Why is this route being run to the sideline? Why is Roethlisberger trying to throw this to the sideline? James Washington has an inside release there, #23 is trying to stay outside of him, and the free safety is way too far away to stop a pass like the one JuJu Smith-Schuster caught in 2018 and took 97 yards for a TD.

The corner was defending that sideline throw from the start, and the Steelers went for it anyway. This isn’t the only problem, O-Line health and a predictable offense were of course factors, but it was a big problem, because it allowed the defense to load the box.

In 2021, the trend has continued. Heavy doses of single-high safety, +1 defender in the box, play outside leverage on the receivers and defend as if every deep ball is going to be thrown outside of the receiver. Because. . . they will be.

Week 2, 2nd quarter, 13:44

Chase Claypool is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

The corner is outside of Claypool, there is not relevant help to the middle of the field. Chase Claypool has to jump up over the defender to try and make the catch. Why? A ball thrown in front of Claypool or a bit inside is going to force the defender to try and go over Claypool’s back to defend it, a touchdown or pass interference call is highly likely. Instead Chase Claypool is trying to make a tough contested catch. This throw against this defense turns what should look like JuJu Smith-Schuster’s catch in 2018 into a low percentage shot.

Week 3, 3rd quarter, 4:36

Pat Freiermuth is in the slot to the top of the screen.

The defender is outside of Pat Freiermuth, a pass straight ahead of the tight end gives him a shot at a touchdown. This ball? Not so much.

The very next play

Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Again outside leverage by the defender, and again, the ball is thrown outside. Claypool has no chance at anything here, in spite of him beating and stacking his coverage.

Week 3, 4th quarter, 11:53

This is a big time win on the release from Chase Claypool. He gets past the defender, then runs in front of (stacking) him. You can see the safety coming, but there is room for this pass to be in front of Claypool, instead it is outside and Claypool’s great win on his route gives him a shot at a pass interference call instead of a shot at a touchdown.

What is the impact from these misses?

After the back-to-back misses to Freiermuth and Claypool, Chris Boswell missed a 43-yard field goal. After the Chase Claypool pass interference the Steelers would settle for a field goal. Going no farther than just the direct score impact, those misses were worth 11 points in Week 3.

But it goes further than that. In 2018 teams had to disguise their coverage if they were going to go single high because Roethlisberger would light you up every time. Late in 2020 and into 2021, teams roll out cover-1 and don’t worry about it at all. They put numbers in the box, stuffing the run game and taking away the slant routes JuJu Smith-Schuster used to feast on. The negative goes so much further than even missed touchdowns. This is the solution to the Steelers’ offense, outside leverage, single high safety. Ben Roethlisberger isn’t making teams pay for it, so why wouldn’t they run it?

Think about the Wild Card game against Cleveland, once Cleveland built up a lead they dropped into split field coverage, using two or even three deep defenders and Ben Roethlisberger started carving them up. Against Cincinnati late in the game they did the same, and the offense looked better.

Falling behind far enough that the other team doesn’t feel they need to stuff the underneath offense anymore isn’t a valid strategy for winning. The Steelers need to force teams to drop a second player deep, and to do that, Ben Roethlisberger needs to find a way back to hitting these throws. We don’t need 2010 Ben Roethlisberger or even 2015 Ben Roethlisberger, 2018 Ben Roethlisberger had a sore arm and could still split a single high safety and a corner with outside leverage, he could do it throwing off his back foot while taking a hit because his center got run over.

And really, even if he throws a few interceptions, we can live with that, what we can’t live with is an offense that can’t get going because it won’t take the throws that the scheme and receivers are winning.