As the old saying goes, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you should not expect that to hold true with Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. He could enjoy a career year in 2013 because of some new tricks.
Long known for his ability to extend plays, Roethlisberger has established himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. But extending plays meant that he took a lot of hits, and the Steelers wanted a change.
Following the 2011 season, Steelers owner Art Rooney II said that Roethlisberger needed to adjust his game.
It wasn’t as though the team wasn't confident in Roethlisberger’s abilities, but rather they wanted him to take fewer hits.
Not only did the Steelers brass expect Roethlisberger to stay healthy, but they wanted more production from the offense. To help achieve this, they replaced Bruce Arians with Todd Haley.
After one year with Haley, Roethlisberger showed signs of evolving his game. Now in his second season in the system, he could be in for a career year.
Signs of Greatness
While the first year of Roethlisberger and Haley never had the blowup that some were anticipating, it did have its rough patches.
Less than two weeks after Haley was hired, Roethlisberger made comments to the media that he hadn’t spoken with Haley yet. It would be the first of several comments that he directed toward his offensive coordinator throughout the season.
In October, Roethlisberger referred to Haley’s scheme as a “dink-and-dunk offense," via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
By no means was this a shot at Haley, but it wasn’t a term of endearment either.
In the grand scheme of things, these issues were minor and were quickly forgotten. Instead, what will be remembered is the potential that Roethlisberger showed early in the season.
Over the first eight games of the season, Roethlisberger was having the best year of his career.
He completed 68 percent of his passes for 2,203 yards, 16 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He was also sacked just 17 times, including three sacks in garbage time against the Denver Broncos.
The only season that would have stacked up to the numbers he was posting last season was 2009, when he completed 66.6 percent of his passes for 4,328 yards, 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
But one big hit against the Kansas City Chiefs derailed what could have been Roethlisberger’s most prolific season. He was not the same after this.
Despite the setback, Roethlisberger showed that he could play within a system. It was the first time that he had done so since 2007, when Bruce Arians took over for Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator.
That also happened to be one of his best seasons, as he threw for 32 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions while completing 65.3 percent of his passes.
Roethlisberger has not been much of a system guy over the course of his career, but when he has played within a strict system, he has been outstanding.
Second Year in the System
When a rookie enters the league, it often takes him a year to adjust to the professional game, and he experiences growing pains. But once year two hits, he finds his stride. The same can be said with quarterbacks in Haley’s system.
Haley has a track record of turning around offenses in year two, and that should be no different this season.
While in Arizona, Kurt Warner exploded in his second season under Haley. He threw for 4,583 yards and 30 touchdowns. Not only were his yardage and touchdown totals an improvement from his first year under Haley, but his completion percentage, average yards per attempt, interceptions and rating all improved.
The same could be said for Matt Cassel in Kansas City.
Cassel is nowhere near the quarterback that Roethlisberger and Warner are/were, but he sure looked the part under Haley.
After floundering in his first year with the Chiefs, he earned a trip to the Pro Bowl in his second season while throwing for 3,693 yards and 27 touchdowns to only seven interceptions.
Beyond improving on their statistics, both Warner and Cassel made the playoffs in their second year with Haley.
So how are things going in year two for the Steelers?
Emmanuel Sanders, who figures to be one of Roethlisberger’s top targets in 2013, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he expects improvements for the offense as well:
"Last year, we were trying to get familiar with the system and coach Haley's coaching style and everything that comes with being in a new offense," Sanders said. "Now we know the plays. Ben understands it. We know where we need to be. We should continue to grow and get better."
Comfort level in a scheme is a key to offensive success, and as Haley’s track record shows, the second year in his system should be a good one.
Scheme and Personnel Changes
Even though the offense showed potential last season, it still has plenty of room to grow. It appears as though the necessary steps are being taken to get better, according to what Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:
“There's been some changes this offseason in some of the offensive philosophies, playbook and some things that I think are good," Roethlisberger said. “It's some compromise from all the different position coaches, the running back coaches, the line, and quarterback coaches. I think we've taken a little bit of everything and made it a lot better.”
Expect this to be a compromise between the best of Haley’s offense with what Roethlisberger likes to do on offense. While we won’t get a chance to see these changes until training camp, it has resulted in a much happier quarterback and one who is leading the way this offseason, via Steelers.com:
“I wanted to tell them this is the start of the 2013 season,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s important for us to know if we want to be the best we can be it starts now. I wanted to let them know that I am here to help and support them, and I plan on leading any way I can.”
This is the type of leadership that the Steelers need from their quarterback, particularly with the personnel changes that are going along with the adjustments to the scheme.
Out are Mike Wallace and Rashard Mendenhall and in are Markus Wheaton and Le’Veon Bell.
Wheaton will be eased into the lineup and has an upside as a slot receiver this year, replacing Sanders who will move to the outside.
Sanders, Wheaton and Antonio Brown are a terrific combination of speed and quickness. They will be perfect fits for what Haley is trying to do on offense with a quick passing attack.
It is important that the Steelers can establish a rhythm with the short passing game, and the Steelers will use the entire offseason and training camp to accomplish this. Roethlisberger needs to have a sense of timing with his receivers and know where they are going to have success.
Besides what the Steelers have at receiver, there is plenty to be excited about with the running game.
Offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. will introduce a new scheme for the Steelers' offensive line and take advantage of the youth and athleticism that they have there.
The line play will be key in keeping Roethlisberger upright, but also opening up holes for Bell.
Bell is one rookie who should see plenty of playing time as a rookie and can help open things up for Roethlisberger in the passing game.
Not only can Bell run with power between the tackles, but he also has enough speed to get to the outside and offers a threat as a receiver.
A strong ground attack will help open up the play-action passing game and allow Roethlisberger to go downfield.
As the Steelers try to get back to the playoffs in 2013, they will need to lean on the play of Roethlisberger. They need him on the field and healthy for the entire 16-game season.
It is a quarterback-driven league and Roethlisberger is still one of the most elite players in the league. He has had a lot of great seasons in the past and could be poised for his greatest yet.
Nothing drives Roethlisberger more than winning championships, and he fell way short last season. Now, he and the coaching staff have made the necessary adjustments to the offense to help get the Steelers back in contention.
With the personnel changes in place and another year in Haley’s system, Roethlisberger is taking charge of leading the team into the 2013 season. Nearly everything is in place for him to have a career year. It will come down to just going out there and performing.
Roethlisberger has always been mentioned as an elite quarterback, now it is time for him to join the ranks as an elite passer. He has the ability, now he just needs the production, and 2013 is setting up perfectly for his best yet.