Ben Roethlisberger: Why It's the Perfect Time to "Tweak" His Game

Joshua Hayes@@JayPHayes1982Correspondent IIFebruary 17, 2012

Ben Roethlisberger: Why It's the Perfect Time to "Tweak" His Game

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    Art Rooney II made the comment that Ben Roethlisberger needed to "tweak" his game, and those words were the focus of many water cooler conversations during the Steel City's early offseason. 

    Opinions varied. 

    Big Ben's style has led the team to two championships, and his aggressive "don't quit" nature has galvanized the team in many critical situations.

    Conversely, those elements of his game will be moot if his career ends prematurely, and Ben's prolongation of plays hasn't always ended advantageously for the quarterback or the team.

    While nobody will argue that Ben's ability to make something out of nothing and keep plays alive is a clear strength, few would deny that No. 7 could benefit from some fine-tuning.  In other words, he needs to focus on taking fewer hits, delivering the ball more quickly, limiting unnecessary risks, and engineering the short passing game.

    Just a day's work at the office, right?  Nobody said changing habits that are ingrained would be easy, but neither is playing quarterback in the NFL.

    Here are 10 reasons that now is the ideal time for Ben to adjust his style of play, even if only slightly. 


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    This is a listing of various reasons in favor of "tweaking," so let's get the most obvious motive out of the way: prolonging the career of the franchise quarterback.

    These field generals don't come around often, not even in every draft, and finding a gifted quarterback who can lead your team to success over the course of a decade- sinner longer- is a blessing.

    Count the number of teams in the NFL who have the same starting quarterback they fielded in September 2004—the month Ben took the helm behind center in Steeltown.  Keep in mind that Philip Rivers was backing up Drew Brees, while Eli Manning was a reserve for Kurt Warner until late in the season.  Do you have your answer?

    Discounting Peyton Manning until issues in Indy are resolved, the answer is ONE.  Only Tom Brady is more tenured.

    Heck, the Black and Gold have only found two quarterbacks in decades who fit the billing. 

    Many signal-callers have talked about reaching the peak of their intelligence for the game in their 30's, regretful that their bodies no longer had the maximum potential lost in their late 20's.

    In other words, the strong, rugged Ben Roethlisberger has a physical advantage many of his peers didn't have, but the number of hits he has taken could have already counteracted this blessing.

    It only takes one devastating injury to destroy a career, and the culmination of multiple career contusions and concussions doesn't help. 

    We all want to see Ben play into his mental prime, but he has to be able to go physically.  Quarterbacks who have taken far fewer hits have retired at ages that are just around the corner for Big Ben. 

    If Roethlisberger wants to be an active player when Super Bowl L goes down, the avoidable rigors have to be thwarted.  The expected wear and tear on an NFL quarterback is more than enough.

    Getting the ball out more quickly and reserving the need to prolong plays will keep defenses at bay, minimize unnecessary hits and reduce the risk of long-term (or career-ending) injuries.

    Fans will never know the quick throw that prevents a disaster from ever happening, but they'll sure remember any encore of last year's brutal ankle injury- or worse!

Keeping His Teammates Fresh Late in Games

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    One element of Ben's play prolongation that few consider is the impact it has on skill players who adjust their routes, putting in bulk yardage running in various directions.

    Indeed, not every 20-yard gain is has only 20 yards of effort behind it.  A full day's work for a Steelers receiver involves a lot of adjusting and horizontal sprinting.  They're well-tuned athletes, but the mileage adds up, especially going against other finely tuned athletes.

    All of these route adjustments are wonderful when the play works, but with so much happening (receivers adjusting, the quarterback scrambling, and blockers putting in a yeoman's effort), the odds are against it.

    We remember the big plays because they stay in the warmest place in our minds, but much of the time, key players get burnt out on prolonged snaps when a conservative checkdown may have worked wonders. 

    With the frequency of such herculean efforts with Ben at the helm, players could benefit from a higher percentage of concise routes combined with decisive decision making by the quarterback.  It's simple physical education: if you run more, you'll be more tired.  Period.  

    If Ben tweaks his game, the benefit will be felt by many on offense.

    Conserving energy by maximizing efficiency keeps key skill players, like Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown, more fresh later in the tough games.

    And, let's be honest: the Steelers have the talent to make this work.  Heath Miller went into beast mode at various points of last season, and it stands to reason that the team will still carry a tough possession receiver on the roster, though the specifics are not clear at this point.  Either way, the receivers are learning to become more precise route runners at the intermediate and short passing game, and their development showed in 2011.

Reducing Negative Plays

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    There's something to be said for the gunslinger mentality in a quarterback, especially one with the physical gifts of a Ben Roethlisberger, who can prolong plays with scary ease and show off his physical gifts on almost every down.

    That something is this: It's damn hard to fight another day.  For the gunslinger, that almost seems like giving up.

    While the bravado of Big Ben's approach leads to a cornucopia of thrilling moments, that thrill is born from the narrow line between feats of heroism and deadly mistakes that are within inches from one becoming the other.

    In other words, this is a great time for Ben to learn that all games are 60-minute marathons; sometimes, you have to know when to turn off the inner gunslinger.  Just ask Brett Favre.

    Thankfully, Roethlisberger's career has seen clutch performances with the game on the line, including in the playoffs, likely demonstrating that the wise quarterback is already somewhat aware of this truism.

    Nevertheless, fewer sacks along the sidelines and reckless throws deep down the field for the sake of what "might" happen will only make the offense more efficient.  For all of their talent, they finished 21st in scoring last season.

    Part of the problem was unnecessary mistakes, but an even larger factor is discussed on the next slide.

Red Zone Efficiency

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    When the offense has a lot of field in front of it, receivers have ample room to adjust their routes, show off their chemistry with the gutsy QB and make magnificent plays downfield.

    In the red zone, the action is compact.  Throwing windows get tighter, receivers have less room and space to adjust their routes and defensive backs are better able to close (and keep) their ground. 

    It is an area of the field that requires great pre-snap reads, quick and accurate throws to ideal personnel and the ability to run the ball.

    Makeshift offense may work in the red zone sometimes, but it's not a high-percentage avenue for touchdown success near the goal line.

    By working on his intermediate, quick-passing game, the net results should show improvement for a red-zone offense that was lacking (or, putrid when you consider the unit's talent). 

    The responsibility doesn't fall exclusively on Big Ben, however.  A solid running game is a huge catalyst for red-zone success, and fans must hope that the offense improves on the ground as well, especially in key situations.

It Keeps Ben's Mind Active and Promotes Improvement

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    The worst state of a great talent in any career field, albeit quarterbacking or paper stocking, is apathy. 

    It's the fundamental nature of those who are great, getting there by striving to be better.

    Sidney Crosby was disappointed with his goal-scoring ability, so he dedicated an offseason to practicing multiple scenarios around the net thousands of times.   By the force of will to be great, he became the league's premiere goal scorer prior to his injuries.

    While one could argue that Ben forgoes the option to hit his quick reads in preference of larger plays down field, the frequency of his scrambles and prolonged time scanning the field indicate a crutch more than a preference.

    That's not to say his intermediate passing game is weak; it's better than most.

    It's also not to say he depends exclusively on broken plays; he wouldn't have survived a year in the NFL that way.

    It's merely to mention that Ben's strengths are obvious, so he should embrace the opportunity to improve himself in other elements of the passing game.

    Do you think Tom Brady or Joe Montana reached the apex of their careers despite being stagnant?  Just as teams and the game itself evolves, so do the men who put on the pads.

    This is Ben's time to show evolution and add to his dangerous make-up.

"Big Ben" Will Not Completely Go Away

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    "Big Ben" earned his nickname playing for the University of Miami (Ohio) on a miraculous Hail Mary pass and victory against Akron. 

    Since his monumental heave, the quarterback's niche for big plays has made him an exciting athlete to watch.  Nobody would be foolish enough to deprive him of this obvious skill set.

    Training a quarterback to consider higher-percentage options earlier in plays isn't necessarily putting training wheels or handcuffs on him.

    Even though the team wants Ben to speed up his delivery and focus on improved reading of defenses pre-snap, that doesn't mean that the guy who has so much fun trying to make big plays has to go away.

    It just means he should be more wise to pick and choose his battles. 

Ben Knows the Game Well Enough to Not Be Overwhelmed

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    Alex Smith had a new offensive coordinator every year prior to the upcoming 2012 season.  As a young starter, he never had the opportunity to find a comfort in any offense, thus affording him the chance to become in tune with the more subtle nuances of the game.

    In other words, it was never able to become second nature to him because he was starting from scratch every season.

    For Ben, the NFL game is clearly ingrained in his DNA.  Multiple seasons, championships, team records and a great statistical career are testaments to his great ability.

    He's not a stiff piece of clay that cannot be manipulated.  He is malleable. 

    Many would argue that Ben's ways are now so set in stone that it's foolish to ask him to play differently?  But, couldn't the opposite be just as true?

    Since the game is so comfortable for Roethlisberger, couldn't that better afford him a chance to "tweak" his already successful style?

    After all, when a rookie comes into the league fresh, they're already overwhelmed. Sure, coaches focus on their passing styles, trying to improve them fundamentally and mechanically.  (cough!...Tebow...cough!)

    But, without a solid framework, wouldn't a veteran have more trouble adjusting to a game that he hasn't mastered than one who has seen everything the NFL can throw at him? 

    Everyone will have a different opinion about teaching an old dog new tricks, but at the end of the day, Ben's no rookie.

    As a professional quarterback comfortable with the talent around him, he has a more solid foundation around him than most.  This shouldn't be remotely overwhelming for him, despite some team changes.

It Removes a Scapegoating Element for the Offensive Line

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    When the offensive line fell to criticism in recent years, the response was often, "well, the sacks would be fewer if Ben's style of play didn't involve holding the ball so long."

    The point is certainly true, but it often became a cop-out for O-line apologists looking for any explanation other than the fact that a key element of any Steelers team could possibly be...

    Not that good?  (Gasp!)

    For those tired of the excuse-making, who realize that the golden standard displayed in Pittsburgh are not illustrated by the state of the offensive hogs, a more efficient passing offense will help to leave no more excuses in the tank. 

    As for the rest who honestly believe the line is sufficient for our causes, unaware that we've won often in spite of their play, you're actually least to a degree.  The line has been "good enough" more often than not in the last few seasons, despite rash injuries and some early season struggles in 2011.  Their play hasn't been entirely horrid as some would have everyone to believe.

    Still, "good enough" in not the standard in the Steel City.  The standard isn't black OR gold, it's "Black and Gold."  Which basically just means GOLD!

    With any luck, the team will focus on drafting a solid guard in late April, helping to shore up a line that will start two recent first-round draft picks from 2010 and 2011.  The future is starting to look brighter upfront.

    Nonetheless, the O-line has to improve, and that isn't limited to pass blocking and protecting Ben.  Improvement in the running game will have an equally vital impact on the offense as a whole.

Todd Haley Can Help Facilitate the Process

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    I came to…appreciate that side of him because he challenged me to be the best I can be.

    The quote came from Kurt Warner in response to questions about Todd Haley's fiery demeanor.  Warner mentioned that the new Steelers offensive coordinator wore his emotions on his sleeve, but that he only desired greatness for everyone.

    Truth be told, that's the answer almost any athlete-coach combination would give about the other.  But, it holds merit coming from Warner, another entrenched quality NFL starter who worked with the emotional Haley.

    With a fresh set of eyes on the Steelers offense, Haley will be able to work with Ben (hopefully, peacefully) on improving his game, helping the quarterback to achieve greatness in areas that were merely sufficient with Arians at the helm.  Part of the problem may have been elements of the offensive philosophy. 

    Haley is known for building offenses around talent, so Big Ben won't be given a script that he isn't capable of fulfilling.  Yet, you can bet your bottom dollar that the scheme will force Ben to reconsider some of the ways he did his business on the field.

    With new concepts on the offensive horizon in the Steel City, it's the perfect time for the unit to iron out the wrinkles and focus on improving in various areas, both individually and collectively.  A new offense (at least, to a degree) and coordinator will translate to a necessary and increased focus, which bodes well for now being a time of transition for No. 7.

He's Done It in the Past!

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    And, lastly, for our big reveal: he can do it!!

    Indeed, our final entry is just that simple.  Ben's ability to adjust is not a mystery because he has done so in the past when it was needed.

    In other words, the tool of a quick delivery and efficient passing attack is not one that No. 7 hasn't tinkered with in the past.

    In the 2006 playoffs, Roethlisberger's offense "out-Peyton'ed" Manning, opening the game with quick, decisive passing quite unexpectedly.  Ben played like a virtuoso, left in full health, and turned an early 14-0 lead into an all too dramatic 21-18 win.

    Last season, he brutalized the Patriots with a similar scheme, "out-Tomming" a certain Brady bunch in a 25-17 Steelers win.

    Beyond these two games, we've seen similar success in spurts that are not quite as obvious.  The no-huddle attack successfully implemented by the Steelers on many occasions has shown a variety of intermediate, quick-passing routes successfully recognized and utilized by Ben.

    The key now is showing Ben the benefits of implementing such strategies for a far greater percentage of the time.