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Steelers Film Room: Blame Ben, but also the playcalling

Ben Roethlisberger never plays well coming back from injury, and he looked awful again Sunday for three and a half quarters. But a closer look at the film shows he was no more than fifty percent of the problem. The rest was the play calling.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday’s game between the Steelers and the Ravens was ugly, in all facets and for both teams. Baltimore won in the big play department, and that really was the deciding factor. Take out their two huge ones — the 95-yard touchdown to receiver Mike Wallace and the blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown — and both teams were downright awful. Possibly, no player was more off his usual game than Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Unless you count coaches, because then he’d be neck-and-neck with offensive coordinator Todd Haley. In fact, I think we’d need a recount.

The reality is that Roethlisberger made some bad decisions, some awful throws, and didn’t read the defense nearly as well as he usually does. But for every bad decision or throw he made, there was at least on corresponding play where there was simply nowhere to go with the ball. That’s on Haley.

But, let’s start with Roethlisberger.

First things first: this is what happens when you are out for a few weeks. Roethlisberger is normally one of the best at finding an open receiver, even when they look covered. On this play, however, he does two things poorly. First, he is slow to identify the deception of lining Suggs up in coverage, and then rushing him instead. This is a three-man rush, and while it doesn’t actually get to Ben, it does give him the illusion that it’s going to. Again, that comes from not playing a game in three weeks.

The second thing he does poorly is place the ball where it needs to be. This was simply a bad throw. He was able to plant and step into the throw; it just went into the ground.

The worst part about this is that, had he recognized that Suggs hadn’t beaten right tackle Marcus Gilbert, and had awaited just a moment longer, he might have seen receiver Eli Rogers break wide open with the safety moving in the exact wrong direction to be able to help the cornerback. This could have been a long gain, if not a touchdown, if Ben simply doesn’t freak out when Suggs gets a little bit of a push. THat’s just what a rusty quarterback does, and Ben is known for being very rusty after an injury.

The next play shows Ben making a rookie mistake.

This was a beautiful throw, and it was almost exactly where it needed to be in order for Rogers to catch it. Unfortunately, Ravens linebacker C.J. Mosley was also right in that exact, same spot. Roethlisberger made a mistake that elite quarterbacks don’t make when they are in the groove: he stared down his receiver. Mosley was already playing the deep part of the left seam, and that just happened to put him in just the right position to make a break on the ball and go for the interception. Fortunately, he dropped it. Unfortunately, it didn’t help in the long run.

Finally, we’ll take a look at a play that was a microcosm of the play-calling issues throughout the day.

At this point, there is still 3:09 left in the game. Yes, the Steelers needed a quick score. And, yes, the defense was right for a vertical pass, at first glance.

The problem is that it was 4th and 18, and this play does nothing to clear out any defenders. It’s simply three vertical routes and one mid-range route. While the Ravens showed just four defensive backs, no one in their right mind is going to think they would rush seven. The two linebackers who backed off the line at the snap get enough depth on their drop to take away anything near the first-down marker, while the four defensive backs are playing “quarters” or Cover-4, with each of them responsible for 25 percent of the deep field. It ended up four on three, in favor of Baltimore, and the pass was poorly thrown anyway thanks to Ben once again rushing a pass due to perceived pressure. A well-practiced Roethlisberger likely steps up in the pocket and extends the play while he waits for a receiver to break off his route and get open.

The final nail in this play’s coffin was that all three vertical routes ultimately were headed for roughly the same spot on the field, meaning the location the ball was supposed to drop on was getting more and more crowded by the second. Even with a well-placed throw, it would have been a miracle if a Steeler came down with it. A better option would have been to send a tight end on a mid-range post to clear out the deep linebackers, and get it to running back Le’Veon Bell underneath, and let him try to make a play with his exceptional feet. Sadly, this play is indicative of the lack of creativity in Haley’s play-calling Sunday, and that did nothing to help a struggling quarterback find open receivers.

In the end, it was just a flat-out bad game. But the calls for Roethlisberger to be replaced by Landry Jones were premature. That became evident when Haley handed over the play-calling reins to Big Ben, allowing him to run a no-huddle offense that let him get into a rhythm, and got the Steelers well enough back into the game that a late onside kick would have mattered had kicker Chris Boswell not tried to teach the ball an Irish jig. But that’s a rant for a different day.