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NFL Draft

Ben Roethlisberger Is Holding Steelers Back & They Only Have Themselves To Blame

  • The Draft Network
  • September 27, 2021
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3:09 remaining in the fourth quarter. 4th-and-10 from Cincinnati's 11-yard line. The Pittsburgh Steelers are down two scores. Ben Roethlisberger drops back and immediately looks to his right. Flinging a feeble swing pass across to running back Najee Harris before he can even get his feet set, Roethlisberger watches as his behind the line of scrimmage toss gets snuffed out immediately.

The play is a microcosm of the game as a whole, and really, Pittsburgh’s offensive plan for the last two years. That plan, of course, being masking Roethlisberger’s depleted arm by whatever means necessary.

It’s a sad state for an organization with a Super Bowl-level defense, but at the end of the day, they backed themselves into this limited approach all by themselves. It was clear after their wild-card loss a year ago and it’s even clearer three weeks into the 2021 season.

A brilliant defensive performance away from a winless record, Pittsburgh’s offense looks like it’s in another entirely different league right now. Unlike a year ago when offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner was the scapegoat for their lackluster attack, the blame now falls squarely on Roethlisberger’s shoulders.

New offensive coordinator Matt Canada—a respected offensive mind with plenty of experience—has tried his best to mix things up with quick-tempo, tons of motion, and lots of eye-candy, but it’s near impossible to call something resembling an offense when your quarterback’s only possible completions are on designed underneath routes and prayer go-balls.

It’s even harder when you factor in that Roethlisberger isn’t the type of quarterback that has generally won on pre-snap reads. Whereas other aging quarterbacks like Philip Rivers and Drew Brees were still able to play decent football when their arms went because of their ability to win before the snap, Roethlisberger has never been particularly great in that area and it’s only been magnified by Canada’s oft-used pre-snap motion approach—a style Roethlisberger himself has said on numerous occasions that he isn’t comfortable with.

So where do you go when you have a quarterback that relies almost solely on his arm when he has no arm?

It seems like everyone besides Pittsburgh knows that answer ends with ‘nowhere’, but instead of doing the right thing and moving on from the struggling signal-caller in the offseason, they’ve tried to bandage a Suez-Canal-sized hole with 15 swing passes a game to Harris.

It’s understandably hard to move on from your franchise quarterback after he’s been the heart of the team for more than a decade, but after seeing nearly half of the organizations in the league make starting quarterback switches this offseason, it’s just absolutely mind-boggling that Pittsburgh wasn’t one of them.

After all, Roethlisberger’s 55-pass, 5.5-yards-per-attempt performances aren’t new. We saw the same mind-numbing ‘U’ shaped pass chart that he posted against Cincy multiple times last year. It was swept under the rug a bit more due to their historically easy first-half schedule and a dominant defense, but it was there.

I get that Pittsburgh didn’t have the ammo or cap space to go after Matthew Stafford or any of the high-profile rookie quarterbacks, but plenty of options were available for cheap: Teddy Bridgewater, Jameis Winston, and Sam Darnold being just a few of the many options that changed teams in the offseason.

Maybe this historic check-down pass offense is all part of the plan in Pittsburgh. Maybe they fully realized Roethlisberger was cooked and wanted to ride out this year before drafting a quarterback (in a bad quarterback class, mind you) in 2022. Of course, that would waste a year off of an elite defense and contradict their win-now move for Harris—a luxury pick they absolutely couldn't afford with the rest of that offense in shambles—but that’s the best I’ve got right now.

In reality, it seems like Pittsburgh hitched their wagon to a fragile, immobile, and sharply declining signal-caller and legitimately thought they had a chance. Throw a replacement-level passer on this team and perhaps they are justified in believing in those deep-playoff level aspirations—after all, beating the Bills with one hand tied behind your back isn’t an easy task. But whatever ‘replacement level’ is, Roethlisberger fell below it long ago.

Everyone but Pittsburgh saw it coming, and they have no one to blame but themselves.

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