A substantial portion of the blame for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ persistent difficulty in translating field position to touchdowns this season has been laid at the feet of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. It’s been said that Big Ben no longer can do the wondrous things that became his trademark as one of the NFL’s top field generals during his 14 seasons in the league. Questions also have been raised about Ben’s degree of motivation, particularly in view of the hints he dropped at the end of last season that he was considering possible retirement.
But a closer examination of what’s actually occurring on the field suggests that the root problem with Pittsburgh’s offense might have more to do with Ben’s lack of familiarity with his current receiver corps, and their lack of familiarity with No. 7. This also was a nagging problem last season, becoming painfully evident in the Steelers’ defeat in Foxborough in the AFC Championship Game.
Consider, for example, the fact that the Steelers’ strongest teams for more than a decade have been characterized by veteran receiver groups tightly synchronized with Roethlisberger. In Super Bowl 40 for example, Ben was throwing the ball to Hines Ward, Antwaan Randle El, Heath Miller and Nate Washington. A few years later, in Super Bowl 43, it was the same grouping of receivers plus the contributions of the talented-but-mercurial Santonio Holmes. By the time of Super Bowl 45, the Steelers had added current NFL stars Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to the group.
While Washington, Randle El and Sanders moved on to other NFL teams after 4- or 5-year stints in the Steel City, Pittsburgh’s core receivers (Miller and Ward) remained in the lineup for 11 and 14 seasons respectively. For this reason, it’s hardly surprising that the level of coordination with receivers throughout the majority of Ben’s career has been consistently outstanding. Essentially, Ben almost always has known exactly how his receivers were going to run their routes and where they were going to be on the field. This was a level of familiarity that very few NFL teams could match, and the results were spectacular, making for plenty of exciting Steelers Sundays.
But during the past two seasons—and with the exception of the incomparable No. 84—the Steelers’ receiving corps has generally resembled a game of musical chairs. Throughout the 2016 season during Martavis Bryant’s suspension, there was plenty of talk about how, once No. 10 returned to action in 2017, the Steelers’ offense would take off to become a more potent scoring machine. But consider where we are now—halfway through the 2017 season and without a significant uptick in offensive performance.
Ben continues to look downfield for Antonio Brown—not because he likes to throw into double-coverage—but mainly due to the comfort level and rapport he’s established with No. 84. There seems little doubt that, if Heath Miller was still in his prime, Pittsburgh wouldn’t be platooning tight ends and the team’s red-zone efficiency would be vastly improved. Similarly, who knows where we might be today if Bryant hadn’t missed the entire 2016 season? Despite the outstanding performance of rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster on Sunday night against the Detroit Lions, neither he nor Bryant has yet established anywhere close to the kind of rapport with Ben that Hines Ward enjoyed throughout his amazing career.
So when it’s remarked that Ben seems a bit ‘off’ these days, and we note that No. 7 is throwing a higher percentage of interceptions so far this season, the explanation might be nothing more complicated than the receivers he’s targeting and the brevity of their backgrounds with the team. Also, in today’s NFL, quarterbacks and receivers get very little practice under game conditions during the preseason, so quarterbacks have no alternative except to adapt to their receivers’ tendencies during games that count in the standings. Not only does this represent a significant difference from the circumstances existing when Roethlisberger was a young quarterback—it’s also far from ideal in terms of getting your team’s offense in gear for the start of the regular season.
But this story could very well have a happy ending for the Black-and-gold. In their victory over Detroit on Sunday night, Ben appeared mostly in synch with Smith-Schuster, despite the fact they’ve only known each other for only about five months. And JuJu might prove to be the same kind of fast-starter which other notable Steelers receivers have been in the past (e.g. Washington, Randle El, Sanders and Holmes). But realizing this welcome development would still leave the tight end situation unresolved, possibly requiring a remedy via the off-season, free-agent market or the 2018 NFL Draft. Of course, that’s assuming No. 7 delays his retirement plans. If you belong to the camp that favors hastening Ben’s exit, it might give you pause to consider that, without Ben, all you’ve got is a group of talented Steelers’ receivers with nobody to get them the ball. Sadly, today’s NFL already has its share of teams like that.
But the need for stability at the tight end position, by itself, isn’t likely to pose any barrier for Pittsburgh’s prospect of making another Super Bowl appearance. As long as Pittsburgh finds its clutch, No. 2 receiver sometime during the second half of this season, don’t be surprised if people suddenly stop wondering whether Ben “might not have it anymore.”