2020 has defied everything about the term normal: Wearing masks have become a part of everyday life, football stadiums remain close to empty on game day, and the Pittsburgh Steelers aren’t off to such a slow start. Following a 38-29 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, the Steelers reached a 4-0 start to their season for the first time since 1979.
As of late, both the Steelers and franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger have been known to begin their season slowly, whether it be on the scoreboard or simply terms of play. Some believe head coach Mike Tomlin’s lack of play time for starters in the preseason may be a catalyst for such events, while others believe Pittsburgh just takes a little more time to shake off the rust than the rest of the league.
Roethlisberger is no stranger to slow starts. Only three times since 2005, Roethlisberger held an average passer rating of 100.0 or higher: 2005, 2012 and 2016. Two of those years (2005/2016) saw the Steelers appear in the AFC Championship, with a Lombardi trophy brought back to Pittsburgh in 2005.
Roethlisberger’s passer rating through four games in 2020? 110.4, the second-highest in his career as a full-time starting quarterback. It’s also the second time he’s thrown 10-plus touchdowns in four games, but only has one interception compared to the four in 2016.
While planning championship parades now shouldn’t be a priority, the Steelers are 4-0 thanks to dominant defensive play and the revival of a Hall of Fame quarterback once thought to only be a shade of himself.
Heading into a prominent week six match-up with a 4-1 Cleveland Browns team, Roethlisberger looks to continue an impressive performance against a Philadelphia defense in which he completed nearly 80% of his passes with three touchdowns and zero interceptions in route to victory.
Assessing Roethlisberger’s most impressive performance thus far:
Third Down Prowess
Prior to Sunday, the Eagles defense ranked fifth in the NFL for third down conversion success, allowing the offense to convert on just 37% of plays to keep the chains moving. Roethlisberger and the rest of the Steelers offense had other ideas, converting 11 of 15 third down attempts.
Not to overstate the importance of third downs, but putting up points on the scoreboard often takes a handful of key third down conversions from the offense. Roethlisberger completed all 13 of his passes on third down for a total of 158 and two scores on the afternoon.
Clutch? Possibly. Key? Absolutely.
On third down, the Steelers found success with three different types of plays:
The slant route may be one of the more efficient routes used in play-calling, with one or two short steps before a quick cut inside, giving the receiver leverage to catch the ball in short-yardage situations and potentially add more damage after the catch dependent on the situation.
Pittsburgh targeted receiver Chase Claypool all three times they ran a slant concept, seeing a vast amount of success. On the first play, the Eagles show man coverage with Claypool in the slot. With the cornerback giving a few yards of space, Roethlisberger already knows who he’s going to prior to the snap. As soon as he catches the snap, Roethlisberger fires it out to Claypool for the easy first down.
The second play sees Claypool run a deeper slant route (perhaps a shallow post route for the sticklers) but yields the same result, as Claypool was wide open after initially beating his man and makes for an easy pitch and catch with Roethlisberger that eventually turned into a touchdown.
The final play of the video again features man coverage on Claypool, with much tighter coverage from the cornerback. Although not the easiest of throws, Roethlisberger zipped a ball into the frame of Claypool for another first down.
Although ran just twice on third down, the prominence of the mesh/drag route concept was used heavily by the Steelers to move the ball downfield. With Roethlisberger ranking 22nd in the league in yards per attempt thus far (7.1), the Steelers didn’t improve to 4-0 relying on Roethlisberger’s deep ball.
A simple drag route (like on the video above) sees a receiver run a shallow crossing route across the field. When used in man coverage, the hope is for the receiver to create enough separation with nothing but speed and angle to beat the cornerback.
That happens precisely on the above play, where Roethlisberger motions running back James Conner to the backfield. Once Roethlisberger sees the defensive player move with Conner and sees the pressure at the line of scrimmage, he knows he has Washington available in one-on-one man coverage. With the cornerback eight yards away from Washington, the drag route makes for a perfect route to gain the first down.
Pittsburgh also ran mesh concepts frequently, although mostly not on third down. This involves two drag routes being ran towards each other, with hope of either: 1. One receiver gaining significant separation or 2. Forcing the trailing defenders to make contact and slightly throw them off pace, thus making one of the receivers open.
This was somewhat run on a third down play to receiver Diontae Johnson, yet Johnson ended up trying to reverse field and took a significant loss.
Bunch Pick/Screen Plays
When you need a handful of yards, look no further than Pittsburgh’s ability to move the chains out of bunch/multi-receiver sets. With multiple receivers on one side of the field bunched together, the Steelers have the outside receiver break inside while the inside receivers move up field to block.
Running these sorts of plays can prove to be tricky, as a blocking receiver making contact prior to the outside receiver possessing the ball would typically result in a flag. If all goes to plan, the receiver with the ball will quickly have two lead-blockers ahead of him in the open field.
The Steelers utilized this set in both short and medium yardage situations with great success. With Steelers receivers bunched, the Eagles have their cornerbacks playing off to avoid any confusion/potential collisions with their own guys when trailing their man.
Fairly simple reads for Roethlisberger to make thanks to play-calling on third down.
It’s no secret that Roethlisberger isn’t quite the athlete he once was. However, he still managed to maneuver and extend plays when needed on Sunday against a Eagles defense that led the league in sacks prior to their match-up.
The first video (slowed down) shows Roethlisberger facing a pressure of six defenders. Roethlisberger feels the pressure and proceeds to drop further than his typical three-step drop, throwing off his back foot and narrowly completing the pass to Washington.
The second play is pure, vintage Roethlisberger. You can see him carry out the play-action and step into the pocket. Nobody open? No problem. Roethlisberger pump-fakes and buys himself more time by scooting away from the pressure to his right before eventually getting the ball out to Ebron.
Finally, the third play shows Roethlisberger’s ability to get north and south when things break down in the pocket. You see Ben shuffle away from the defender to his right after pump-faking before somehow navigating past two more Eagles defensive linemen in proximity prior to finding Conner to his left. The pure agility from Roethlisberger here, given his age and body, is nothing short of impressive, yet it’s just another disappearing act by Roethlisberger in the pocket.
Deep Ball Problems
Once upon a time, Roethlisberger was considered one of the best in the league in terms of hitting the deep ball. However, following four weeks of play coming off elbow surgery, Roethlisberger’s gathered his fair share of critics since his return.
“I’m still missing the deep ball too much, still overthrowing,” said Roethlisberger following the Eagles game. “I know last week I talked about it and said I’d rather overthrow it than underthrow it. But I’ve got to figure it out. I don’t know if the doc made my arm, I guess, a little stronger. I don’t know. I’ve got to figure out how to connect on those deep balls a little more.”
Roethlisberger threw all but four deep balls in last week’s victory, connecting for one touchdown and three incompletions.
In the first clip, Roethlisberger simply just misses Claypool, who may have gotten the ball with inside leverage. Roethlisberger aimed a little high, perhaps hoping Claypool could use his frame and nab the catch.
In the second clip, it appears as if it’s a matter of miscommunication. Roethlisberger pump-fakes right and comes back to Claypool, who appears to have a step on the cornerback. While Claypool continues to run deep, Roethlisberger believed Claypool would peel back for a back-shoulder catch judging by the ball placement.
Despite the two incompletions, Roethlisberger did manage to find nice placement on the other half of his deep passes.
Although the first clip didn’t count due to Claypool not getting two (different) feet down, this deep ball by Roethlisberger is phenomenal. Claypool runs a nice out and up with plenty of space between him and the sideline, giving Roethlisberger plenty of space to place the ball between him and the out of bounds area. Roethlisberger pins the ball only where Claypool could grab it after stepping into the pocket. This play is a great throw that simply won’t show up on the stat sheet.
The second clip (Claypool’s fourth touchdown) comes as easy as any touchdown Roethlisberger will throw. With linebacker Nate Gerry lined up in man coverage on Claypool (in the slot) and two high safeties, Roethlisberger knows he’s got a deep ball over the middle hot and ready. On the end zone angle of the play, you can see Roethlisberger talk to Claypool and presumably point out the lack of presence in the open field. Once the ball is snapped, Claypool sells Gerry on a short route before speeding past him vertically. While Claypool is doing this, Roethlisberger holds the safety on the left with his eyes prior to snapping back and firing to an open Claypool. Well executed by both players to ice the game.
Through four games, Roethlisberger looks much like the quarterback Steelers fans last saw in 2018, minus the turnovers. Roethlisberger has a plethora of talent around him, with seemingly only decision-making sitting between the Steelers and another playoff run.
Week six sees the Steelers play host to a 4-1 Cleveland Browns team that would love nothing more than to prove they’re legitimate against their fiercest rival. Should Cleveland come as advertised, Roethlisberger will have to replicate a solid week five performance.
First and foremost, don’t allow Cleveland to capitalize on any turnovers. No silly mistakes, no forced errors. Make smart throws and let your defense take over if needed. With only one interception to his name, this appears to be a minor concern.
I touched on Roethlisberger’s ability to move in the pocket and extend plays, and that will likely be needed again with a hungry Myles Garrett ready to take advantage of Pittsburgh’s offensive line.
Although unrealistic, converting third downs at a similar rate would benefit the Steelers offensive for a number of obvious reasons. With more opportunity to score by moving the chains, you’re also keeping a star-studded offense off the field that have begun to heat up in prior weeks.
There’s not much negative to fix from Philadelphia’s game to the upcoming week for Roethlisberger. It appears as if Roethlisberger now feels as close to comfortable as he’ll allow himself to be, and next Sunday’s divisional showdown will tell if he truly has returned to the Roethlisberger we’ve seen in the past.