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Will Roethlisberger and Haley iron out their differences in 2013
It seems silly to say that the Steelers best player needs to have a great year for the team to make it back to the playoffs, but Big Ben is so critical to Pittsburgh’s offense that the 2013 season may completely hinge on his effectiveness—just as this year’s campaign did.
The biggest issues affecting the play of the Steelers' starting quarterback next season will be his health and his relationship with offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
The first issue is very straightforward and (presumably) easy to address. If Roethlisberger stays on the field, Pittsburgh stands a good chance of winning games next year. If he misses significant stretches due to injuries again, the Steelers are looking at another tough season. Even if the team upgrades its backup quarterback situation through the draft—the most probable scenario given salary cap pressures—the second or third-string quarterbacks are still unlikely to be able to perform at the same level as a player who arguably ranks among the position’s elite.
With a healthy Roethlisberger leading the offense, the Steelers went 6-3 to open the season. Sure, those three losses were to subpar teams, but the team was still just one game behind the division-leading Ravens at that point and were poised to make a run at the playoffs in the second half of the season.
Instead, Big Ben missed the next three games, and Pittsburgh went 1-2. The team split games with the Ravens and failed to gain ground on its AFC North rival.
Though many factors contributed to this midseason swoon—including some that hurt the Steelers even when Roethlisberger was in the lineup—a drop-off in quarterback play was arguably what put the 2012 campaign on a downward path.
Backups Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch combined to complete 56.9 percent of their passes, an average of only 6.1 yards per attempt. They also only thrww one touchdown combined against five interceptions. They posted QBRs of 34 and 34.8 respectively. And, again, the team was only able to win just one game.
By contrast, Big Ben was arguably having the most efficient season of his career coming into the Kansas City game in which he got hurt. He had completed 67.1 percent of his passes, averaged 7.4 yards per attempt and had thrown 16 touchdowns versus only four interceptions at that point. And most importantly, the Steelers won six of nine games during that stretch.
After returning from the injury, he was not the same player, and Pittsburgh went 1-3 to close the season. In the final four games of the season, he connected on only 56.4 percent of his throws. His passing yards per game fell from 275.4 to 244.5. His touchdowns per game remained about the same (about two per), but he threw the same number of interceptions in those last four games as he did in the nine games before the injury. Two of those picks cost the Steelers winnable games.
Based on those numbers and results, it was not a surprise when Roethlisberger later admitted that he came back too soon.
The second issue is more complicated and harder to address. Big Ben and Haley clashed over play-calling in 2012, and there is some evidence to suggest that the latter’s offensive scheme doesn’t make good use of the huge, mobile quarterback’s unique skills.
But barring unforeseen changes this offseason, Roethlisberger will still be the quarterback next year, and Haley will still be the offensive coordinator. They will need to learn to live with each other and find ways to get the most out of their partnership.
The quarterback should dedicate his offseason to mastering Haley’s offense and appreciate that it is designed to keep him upright and healthy for longer stretches. The offensive coordinator should set his ego aside and refine his gameplan to include more passes down the field so as to take advantage of Big Ben’s ability to extend plays. If reputed coaching genius Mike Shanahan can install Baylor’s offensive scheme for Robert Griffin III, can’t Haley tweak his a bit for Roethlisberger?
Will these two strong personalities figure out how to coexist next year? That is hard to say at this point, but the fate of the 2013 season may depend on it.