Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked five times in the team's season-opening 31-19 loss to the Denver Broncos. That means Roethlisberger is on pace to be sacked 80 times this season. That won't be the case (could you even imagine), but it seems impossible he'll get out of the year with anything less than 40 sacks.
Part of the problem over the years has been an underperforming and oft-injured offensive line. However, every offensive line in the NFL struggles at one point or another without consistently letting their quarterback get as hit as much as the Steelers' quarterback is hit.
As such, it's quite possible that there is no offensive line to truly protect Roethlisberger, no combination of players—aside from a full complement of expensive Pro Bowl veterans—who have a chance of keeping him consistently clean.
According to this year's Football Outsiders Almanac, only two quarterbacks—Randall Cunningham and Neil Lomax—were sacked as much as Roethlisberger before turning 30 years old (Roethlisberger's current age).
Lomax missed the 1989 season, when he was 30, and had to retire the following year thanks to a degenerative hip condition. Cunningham broke his leg at age 30, retired and returned for one good season before giving up the game completely.
Therefore, you can see that there is little precedent for a quarterback of Roethlisberger's age taking as much punishment as he has and still being effective after age 30. Hence, new Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley is hoping to keep Roethlisberger in the pocket more this season.
Roethlisberger, however, is resistant to this change, and for good reason.
The crux of his success as a quarterback is his ability to roll away from pressure, get defenders' hands off of him and throw for big completions, even while in danger of taking a huge hit. But that's also a reason why offensive lines haven't been able to protect him and also why he's suffered so many injuries over the duration of his career.
It's a double-edged sword, though. On the one hand, Roethlisberger has had to escape the pocket to make plays because the offensive line cannot hold up. On the other, there's Roethlisberger's propensity to leave the pocket regardless, forcing the line to shift and thus leaving it exposed to defensive pressure.
There are also instances when he has time in the pocket, but he holds the ball too long while the coverage leaves no one open. So it's hard to find the right balance of in- and out-of-the-pocket passing while putting together an offensive line that is adaptable to both.
Roethlisberger's unpredictability is an asset to the team. But it can serve as a liability to the Steelers' offensive line, because it comes up equally as confounded about where he's headed as the defenders tasked with stopping him.
One solution could be for the Steelers to stock up on offensive linemen and rotate them in and out, much as a team would their defensive line. But that makes the offense predictable.
If there are certain players on the field who specialize in the run, or in maintaining a pocket, or are good at kicking out, then opposing defenses know what to expect. Further, finding offensive linemen who are up to this task is like finding a needle in a haystack.
Apparently, the answer may be that there is no answer. Health issues or not, the Steelers offensive line will be perennially challenged to protect an elusive quarterback like Roethlisberger. And if Roethlisberger changes his style of play, the Steelers offense loses a major component of why it's been so effective.
So don't blame Roethlisberger or the offensive line—there's simply nothing either can do. He can't be—and likely shouldn't be—protected.
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