Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger has been an easy target for almost every prognosticator in the offseason. These analysts look to 39-year-old posting career lows in yards/attempt (6.3) and yards/completion (9.5) which finished at or near the bottom of the rankings (29th and 33rd in the league respectively). This put him near or below the likes of Andy Dalton, Sam Darnold, Mitchell Trubisky, and Daniel Jones. For perspective, Roethlisberger led the NFL in both categories during the 2005 (8.9/14.2) and was #1/#3 (8.2/13.3) on the 2010 Super Bowl seasons.
These detractors are quick to jump on this data and the struggles down the stretch, utilizing their conscious or unconscious bias to justify their criticism of Roethlisberger. They are correct in that Big Ben would get rid of the ball quick and defenses adjusted with the appropriate tactics. They jump on the fact that Big Ben all but abandoned his trademark style of extending the play, although it was something he did in the 2nd half vs. the Indianapolis Colts and in the final three quarters vs. the Cleveland Browns resulting in 7 TDs and 700+ yards passing — meaning he still has it in him when it needs to be done.
What the detractors do not point out is in the more advanced analytics. When the Steelers were able to run the ball effectively during the first six weeks of the season (130 yards/game), Roethlisberger was outpacing his 2008 production in every category and upon recollection, the Steelers did pretty well that season. It wasn’t until the running game became non-existent (57 yards/game over the final 10 weeks) that defenses began to find ways to exploit the Steelers limitations on offense.
Steelers offensive coordinator, Matt Canada has stated that Art Rooney II made a clear directive to Mike Tomlin, Kevin Colbert, and himself that, “We want to be able to run the ball when we have to run it.” It’s not a matter of averaging 100 yards per game, but to attain balance. The same balance that occurred under the direction of Hall of Fame head coach, Bill Cowher. By dialing it back for a “less is more” approach, Cowher put the young Roethlisberger in a position to first manage the game, then win the game.
This dialing down of returning to the 30 passes per game from the absurd NFL leading 42/game in 2018 and 41/game in 2020 due to an effective running game will enable Roethlisberger to “pick his shots”, something that worked so well early in the season.
Why should anyone believe they can dial it back on the pass attempts? It’s pretty clear that despite the early season production, James Conner was unable to provide a dynamic element or bring big plays to the running game. Past RBs like Willie Parker, Rashard Mendenhall and Le’Veon Bell turned many plays that were broken into ones that resulted in positive yardage and first downs. This is a dynamic that Najee Harris brings back into the arsenal. While these dynamic plays might not manifest in the top highlight reel plays, they will move the sticks and that is something that was sorely lacking in 2020.
There is legitimate question about the offensive line. On the surface, losing Pro Bowl OL’s Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Alejandro Villanueva is devastating. But when both Pouncey and DeCastro revealed that they were playing with severe pain all season, the result of many years playing through pain taking their toll, upon reflection it was clear neither had the range or power to provide a push of the line in 2020. I would submit that outside the experience factor as they were unable to win the battle going forward at the line of scrimmage, the infusion of younger and stronger Kevin Dotson, Zach Banner and hopefully Kendrick Green (not to mention the greater use of a TE in Pat Freiermuth as additional blocker), will provide a surprising upgrade as they create holes for Harris.
In fact, I’ll predict right now that minus injury, Harris will become the focal point of the offense with 1,100+ yards and bordering on 10 TDs en route to winning Offensive Rookie of the Year. Roethlisberger will be able to pull off a few games showing the old form and even be the difference maker on occasion. But a return to the mid 2000s mindset is exactly what this offense needs.
The only question will be, how will Roethlisberger feel about relinquishing the command of the offense. My guess is, he will be happy to hand the ball off to success.
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