When the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants face off on Sunday, it will mark a rare showdown between two members of the 2004 NFL Draft class: Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Both quarterbacks were selected early in the first round, and the race has been on since to define who is the better passer.
Each quarterback has two Super Bowl rings, and each has become an indispensable part of their team's offense. Here’s a breakdown of the matchup between these two elite quarterbacks.
Who’s Playing Better?
Right now, the answer is Roethlisberger by at least a few miles. He’s enjoying a phenomenal campaign and a breakout first year in Todd Haley’s offensive system. He’s tossed only three interceptions on the season against 14 touchdowns. He has a 101.4 rating so far.
Roethlisberger is playing a different game than he’s become accustomed to. He’s still throwing a lot. The difference is that the Steelers are using short and medium passes instead of the deep ball to extend drives and deprive opposing offenses of time on the field.
Meanwhile Manning continues to operate effectively in Kevin Gilbride’s offense. He’s thrown eight interceptions against 12 touchdowns, but he’s not playing badly. He does seem to make errant throws a few times a game and goes through funks when the offense doesn’t move.
Manning is an elite player, but he’s not having an elite season. He’s played one more game than Roethlisberger, but his statistics are worse in most categories. This game will be interesting because it will be Manning who has the better chance of shining against a defense still working to play full games effectively.
What to Expect
This game is going to be an interesting one. Both teams lean on effective passing games more than rushing attacks. Both have been involving their runners more frequently as the season has gone forward.
I would expect to see a large dose of the running game from each team. That’s not because either pass defense is particularly threatening. It is because the Steelers are riding two excellent rushing efforts in a row and because the Giants are facing a run defense that has bent a lot in recent weeks without really breaking.
Still, both quarterbacks will put the ball up a fair amount of times. Manning is facing the league’s top pass defense, but those numbers to me are a bit misleading. The Steelers are one of the best teams in the league for time of possession. That takes away offensive opportunities for their opponents.
Beyond the lack of chances, the Steelers have only recently begun to slow down opposing teams. Their defense is riddled with injuries that range from minor to Troy Polamalu’s troublesome calf, which is forcing him to miss a fourth straight game.
The most concerning thing is that the Steelers don’t pressure quarterbacks enough. They’ve managed 12 sacks. For a team that used to live by the pass rush, that’s awful. At this point, it’s fair to say that Todd Haley has been the defense’s best weapon.
For Roethlisberger, this is about playing smart against a defense that leads the league in forcing turnovers. They have 24 so far. Roethlisberger is one of the league’s most efficient quarterbacks this year and has not taken many sacks or thrown many poor passes. He’ll have to be especially aware Sunday afternoon.
The Head to Head
This matchup has only happened twice so far. Opposite conferences combined with the rotating schedule between divisions makes this a twice-per-decade affair. So far, Manning and Roethlisberger have each won one game against one another.
It’s hard to stack these guys against each other in any measure because of the inherent differences in opponents, styles and other measurements.
What is clear from numbers and from watching both players develop from rookies into the elite signal-callers of today is that Roethlisberger is more consistent. He’s playing in an offense where he suddenly seems unstoppable, and his team features more weapons at his disposal than what Manning can muster on his side.
So much of what a quarterback does depends on the work of others. Receivers have to catch the passes. Linemen have to block for them. Defenses have to sometimes fail inexplicably. At this point, the advantage in teammates lies with the man in black and gold.
Manning holds the edge in what his defense can do, however. If their fierce pass rush and excellent turnover margin wins out, it will be the boys in blue celebrating the victory.
But if they wilt as they did for a time against the Cowboys last week, then I have no doubt that Ben Roethlisberger will seize upon the moment and lead his team to victory.
In the measure of who is more clutch, Roethlisberger has my vote. The good news for Giants fans, however, is that Manning is gaining on him fast. Both quarterbacks have been at their best with games on the line. In a game that might come down to a last-ditch drive, that would be the tiebreaker.
One thing I’m sure of is that this will be one excellent game to watch Sunday afternoon.