The Demise of Ben Roethlisberger

Pressure and consistency are elements of quarterback evaluation that share similar challenges.

Pressure, the physical form rather than the “clutch” form, is analytically measured and presented as a single entity. “Russell Wilson was under pressure on 43 percent of his snaps” for example. In reality, pressure is vastly more complex than that. Was it backside pressure? Was it frontside pressure? Was it one defender who was a yard away coming up the middle? Was it three defenders hitting the quarterback as he released the ball? These pressure numbers are typically used to point to the quality of an offensive line yet they don’t differentiate between pressure created by the line and pressure created by the quarterback.

We treat consistency as a single-entity term. Is Quarterback X consistent? Yes. No. That’s typically where the discussion stops.

There are different forms of consistency. Some quarterbacks struggle with their consistency on a snap-by-snap basis, Jameis Winston for example. Winston will throw a perfect seam route that splits the coverage and leads his tight end into space, then he’ll throw the ball straight up into the air where there is no receiver to be seen. Other quarterbacks suffer consistency challenges on a season-to-season basis, Russell Wilson is the greatest example there. Wilson is currently lugging his bad accuracy through this season, he struggled last year too but that was mostly because of injury. Before that he had two great seasons, one rookie season and one not-so-great season. It happens.

Most quarterbacks don’t stand out as extremely inconsistent whether it’s on a snap-by-snap, season-by-season or game-by-game basis. Ben Roethlisberger has been an exception.

The Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback became renowned for his week-to-week unpredictability last season. An average accuracy percentage for a quarterback last year was 73.59 percent. While expectations differ based on how often the quarterback throws to different levels of the field and based on the systems they play in, in general a good accuracy percentage will land above 70 percent. Roethlisberger had his great games last year. Six times he was accurate on at least 80 percent of his passes in a game. He was regularly pushing the ball deep in those games. Seven times he didn’t even reach 70 percent.

In six of those seven he didn’t even reach 65 percent. When Roethlisberger was bad, he was really bad. When he was good, he was really good. That variance in his play led to an inconsistent passing game for the Steelers but the upside of Roethlisberger’s play combined with the quality of Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and that offensive line meant the impact of Roethlisberger’s negative performances wasn’t fully felt.

Bringing Martavis Bryant back into the offense and adding the impressive Juju Smith-Schuster to go along with the continued growth of Jesse James set Roethlisberger up for a big season this year. Even if he was inconsistent, he was throwing to three skill position players-Brown, Bryant, Bell-who offered him a wide margin for error behind one of the best offensive lines in the league with a play caller who understands how to scheme easy throws that turn into big plays. The only obstacle Roethlisberger would have to overcome was himself.

(It all went a bit Disney towards the end of that last paragraph.)

Jalen Ramsey and the Jacksonville Jaguars defense put the spotlight on Roethlisberger this past Sunday. Five interceptions, 5.7 yards per attempt and an upset loss at home made Roethlisberger question if he had it anymore. Had you been paying attention over the first month of the season, you’d have been asking the same question. The 35-year old has brought all of the negatives from last season into this year without any of the positives. He’s no longer wildly inconsistent, he’s just wildly inaccurate.

Roethlisberger had an overall accuracy percentage of 72.99 percent last season. That ranked 19th in the league but that’s without considering that he threw the highest percentage of deep passes in the league by a wide margin. 15.92 percent of Roethlisberger’s passes travelled further than 20 yards downfield, Cam Newton was second at 13.83 percent while the league average was 10.81 percent. Roethlisberger didn’t just throw the ball downfield a lot, he did so well. Even while regularly throwing to Sammie Coates and Cobi Hamilton who couldn’t create their own separation, Roethlisberger was accurate on 44.94 percent of his deep passes.

44.94 percent ranked 13th in the league, more than three percent higher than the league average of 41.47 percent.

In general Roethlisberger wasn’t an exceptionally accurate passer but he had areas of strength without any area of great weakness. Ranking 22nd in the league in three yard ranges is obviously not ideal but in the 1-5 yard range he was within one percent of the league average and in the 6-10 yard range he was within three percent of the league average. Being six percent below the league average in the 16-20 yard range was Roethlisberger’s biggest accuracy flaw last season.

Spectacular accuracy numbers aren’t necessary for a quarterback to be great. Making good decisions, throwing receivers open and playing from unclean pockets while understanding situational football were all areas where Roethlisberger excelled during his “good” games.

While you may not need spectacular accuracy to be a great quarterback, you can’t be even an average quarterback with awful accuracy. So far this season, Roethlisberger’s accuracy has been awful. Three of his five games haven’t cracked a 70 accuracy percentage, one of the two that did was a 70.59 accuracy percentage in Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns where Roethlisberger threw 62 percent of his passes within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Roethlisberger has had one game this year where he didn’t even reach 60 percent with his accuracy, it was a 56.41 performance against the Chicago Bears in Week 3.

The hamartia reveals itself when you examine Roethlisberger’s numbers by depth.

For most of this season Roethlisberger has played without a clear process. He’s not diagnosing coverages to make decisions, he’s picking a receiver and heaving the ball in his general direction without any consideration for timing or ball placement. With Martavis Bryant back on the field, Roethlisberger has a greater margin for error. With Brown and Bryant he has the greatest margin for error on deep throws outside of Tampa Bay. None of that matters if you’re missing so wildly that your receivers never have a chance to make a play on the ball.

That’s who Roethlisberger is right now when he throws past 10 yards downfield. His current numbers would have ranked 30th, 30th and 34th (last) in those ranges last year. Most concerning is that deep ball.

Entering the Jaguars game on Sunday, Roethlisberger had been accurate on three of 18 deep attempts. He hit one of six attempts against the Jaguars so his accuracy percentage for the season is 16.67 percent (rounded up in the chart), four of 24 attempts. Consider that the league average last season was greater than 40 percent. Consider that Blake Bortles’ 22.41 percent was outrageously bad relative to the rest of the league and Roethlisberger is more than five percent behind him. He’s exactly 10 percent behind where Jared Goff was last year as the second-worst deep passer in 2016.

Roethlisberger has no excuse. He’s not missing throws because he’s throwing from unclean pockets or being forced to fit balls into receivers who can’t get open. All but one of his deep passes have targeted Antonio Brown or Martavis Bryant.

Brown is one of the best receivers in the NFL. For his quarterback’s only deep completion on Sunday he manipulated Ramsey after getting in behind the cornerback to create a clean catching space. Roethlisberger’s pass had enough velocity and was placed deep enough that it was still deemed an accurate pass but Brown’s impact on the result of the play was undeniable. A lesser receiver wouldn’t have made the play.

Although Brown is better than Bryant, Bryant is the easier deep receiver to throw to. The former Clemson product has a rare combination of size, speed, fluidity and subtlety. He can set up his vertical routes or simply run past defenders in a straight sprint. Bryant adjusts to passes as well as any receiver and can catch up to overthrown passes. A quarterback throwing to Bryant should not only have a higher completion percentage on deep throws, he should have a higher accuracy percentage simply because the throws he has to attempt are easier.

To properly highlight Bryant’s value, and in turn Roethlisberger’s decline, we have to go back to last season when Bryant wasn’t on the field.

Last year, Roethlisberger was accurate on 42.86 percent of his deep passes to Brown. He was accurate on 45.9 percent of his deep passes to all other receivers. That cast includes illustrious names such as Cobi Hamilton, Sammie Coates, Eli Rogers, Markus Wheaton, Lardarius Green and Darius Heyward-Bey. Roethlisberger was regularly being asked to fit the ball into tight windows like in the two plays above.

Bill Belichick anchored his coverages off of the Steelers’ “other” receiver in that game. He forced Roethlisberger to throw to Coates and Hamilton because they were one-on-one in space. The receivers couldn’t beat the cornerbacks assigned to them so Roethlisberger had to throw them open.

This play from two weeks ago highlights the difference with Bryant. He is capable of beating any type of coverage and any type of cornerback so once he is found within the timing of the play he creates wider windows for his quarterback. He not only has his size and ball skills to pluck the ball from the air, he has also accelerated to the point that he is more than a step in behind the defender. Roethlisberger doesn’t need to make a perfect throw, he just has to lay the ball out within the range that is passed the trailing defender but not out of Bryant’s reach.

This should have been a (relatively) easy touchdown.

Going from being one of the best deep passers in the league to by far the worst has completely altered Roethlisberger’s identity as a quarterback. Now that he can’t create big plays, both inside and outside of his offense’s structure, he is more reliant on being perfect on short and intermediate routes. To succeed without being able to throw the ball further than 10 yards downfield you have to be perfect. You have to be mentally and technically perfect. You have to diagnose coverages before the snap and adjust instantly at the snap whenever teams try to bait you into mistakes.

Roethlisberger isn’t that quarterback. He’s not going to do what Tom Brady does. He’s not going to execute a 20-play drive where the biggest gain is less than 15 yards. Todd Haley has developed him into a disciplined pocket passer but not to the point that he can succeed without big plays.

The biggest challenge for Roethlisberger is running an efficient offense while taking care of the ball. On Sunday Roethlisberger spread the ball relatively evenly to every level of the field, including 12 screen plays to offset his huge attempt numbers. Yet he threw six interceptable passes on 55 attempts. Roethlisberger is throwing an interceptable pass on six percent of his passes, one every 16.25 attempts. That would have ranked just ahead of Brock Osweiler and just behind Jameis Winston as one of the worst offenders in the league last year.

Last year, with only two thirds of the Bryant-Bell-Brown trio to impact how defenses played him, Roethlisberger threw an interceptable pass on 5.62 percent of his passes, he ranked on the opposite side of Winston. The interceptable passes aren’t going away. The question is if the deep ball return?

Roethlisberger is 35 years of age and an old 35. You don’t need accurate pressure stats to understand that he’s absorbed an abnormal number of hits because of his style of play and the quality of offensive lines he played behind for most of his career. Roethlisberger’s body is breaking down and he doesn’t have the technical discipline or advanced acumen to make up for it. The supporting cast is there for some form of bounce back, but right now his career is hurtling towards an abrupt ending.

The Pittsburgh Steelers Need for a Big, Red Zone Receiver is a Myth

Jerricho Cotchery scored 10 red zone touchdowns in 2013.

The Pittsburgh Steelers weren’t efficient in the red zone during the 2013 season because they have small receivers.

This is a widely accepted ideal.

Widely accepted ideals aren’t widely accepted facts because they are not based on intensive research. They are based on simple logic that is gleaned from the most likely relationship between two facts. During the 2012 season, it was a widely accepted ideal that San Francisco 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith got a large percentage of his sacks on stunt plays. Smith had 22 sacks in total, but only four came after he carried out a stunt and only two saw him get a clean run to the quarterback because of a stunt.

Just like with Smith’s sacks, the perception of what the Steelers do in the red zone is inaccurate.

On drives when they had at least one offensive snap that was officially listed on the opposition’s 20-yard line or closer to the opposition’s goal line, the Steelers had a 53.7 percent touchdown rate. The Steelers scored 29 touchdowns on 54 attempts. This isn’t a horrible percentage, it appears to be somewhere around league average, but it could definitely be improved upon.

Bringing in bigger receivers wouldn’t solve the problems the Steelers had last season.

Theoretically, bigger receivers should be more successful in the red zone because they should have more opportunities to catch the ball. In the red zone, there is less space to work in so receivers need to make more contested catches and the quarterback needs to be more accurate. In jump ball situations or on fade routes, bigger receivers should be more successful because of their size.

Like most things in football, size is overrated. Continue reading

Miami Dolphins: Breaking Down the Ryan Tannehill and Mike Wallace Connection

After failing to make an impact in a Week 1 matchup with the Cleveland Browns, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace expressed his frustrations at how he was used. Wallace is seen as a diva wide receiver by some sections of analysts and fans, while many believe he is paid too much money to be reliant on how he is used to produce.

For any receiver, how you are used is vital. In fact, how any player in this league is used is vital for their production.

Wallace in particular needs to be used properly to maximise his ability. In Week 1, the Dolphins failed to set up the coverage with underneath passes and screens. It allowed the Browns and Joe Haden to cover him with ease as he repeatedly ran deep sideline routes. Against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 2, Wallace caught a crossing route, a quick slant and a screen pass that went for a touchdown early in the game. Continue reading

Pittsburgh Steelers Set Up For More Offensive Success in Todd Haley’s Second Year

LeVeon Bell is just one new addition for the Steelers’ offense in 2013.

For the first time in the whole game, the Denver Broncos didn’t run the ball on first down. Instead, Tim Tebow faked the ball to Willis McGahee before throwing a dart over the head of Ryan Mundy into the hands of Demaryius Thomas. Thomas sprinted away from Ike Taylor and into the endzone, the lowest point of the Steelers’ 2011 season was also the point at which their season came to a close.

Not only did that play bring down the curtain on the Steelers’ season, but it also would stand in history as the last play of Bruce Arians’ career as the team’s offensive coordinator. Arians, Hines Ward, James Farrior and William Gay would all be elsewhere soon after, but it was Arians’ loss that would cause ripple effects throughout the following season.

As soon as Arians was let go, star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger made his displeasure known. Roethlisberger had grown very close to Arians, some might say too close, likely because he had always allowed him to play the game his way and not tried to force him into any particular scheme. In short, Arians let Roethlisberger be Roethlisberger.

For that reason, it was a surprise to many when the Steelers brought in Todd Haley to succeed Arians. Not only was Haley seen as a completely different coach to Arians, but he also brought a very fiery, passionate character to Pittsburgh that would potentially be destructive when juxtaposed next to Roethlisberger’s.

This was something that the national media zoned in on during the quieter parts of the off-season, as the duo not speaking initially was blown completely out of proportion. Even though the idea of a rift between the two before they even spoke was outlandish, a semblance of truth to the rumors appeared to surface during the regular season. Roethlisberger never looked comfortable in Haley’s scheme and his body language was significantly worse than it had been over the previous few seasons. Continue reading

NFL Draft 2013: Arthur Brown Could Continue the Evolution of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Defense

Arthur Brown could be the next great Steelers linebacker.

In two days, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will step towards the podium at Radio City Music Hall in New York to announce that the Pittsburgh Steelers will draft….

And that is where the story ends for now.

Only twice since 2004 have the Pittsburgh Steelers selected as high in the draft as they will this year. The first time they came away with a young quarterback who would quickly lead his team to two Super Bowl championships, Ben Roethlisberger. The second time they would land one of their current defensive leaders n Lawrence Timmons. The Steelers will pick 17th, the highest they have picked since they took Maurkice Pouncey 18th overall in 2010.

Steelers’ general manager Kevin Colbert said at a recent press conference, “I doubt that we move up. I think the more picks we have the better, in this draft particularly. But there will be a good player at 17, there’s no question about that.” Colbert didn’t tip his hand in any particular direction, but former Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones believes that he is atop their board, while safeties Jonathan Cyprien or Kenny Vaccaro could be considerations. Tank Carradine’s potential could tempt them also or a defensive lineman.

The best prospect for the Steelers may be inside linebacker Arthur Brown. Brown has been a favorite of the online scout community for some time, but most of the mainstream media is just beginning to recognize his potential as a top 20 pick. A product of Kansas, most of the skepticism surrounding Brown’s NFL projection is sourced from his size. Brown is just 6′ and 240 points. He has the frame to add bulk, but will definitely be under pressure to do so on the next level. Continue reading