Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger isn't a flawless quarterback, but that hasn't prevented him from being highly effective at his job. In fact, there are few quarterbacks in the NFL whose flaws can also be their biggest assets, as is the case for Roethlisberger and his predilection to successfully extend plays often at the expense of his own well-being.
This doesn't mean that there aren't areas in which Roethlisberger can improve as a quarterback, especially with the Steelers coming off a disappointing 8-8 season. Some of his issues aren't completely his fault while others are solely up to him to change, but to his credit, there are few areas of concern for Roethlisberger's game going into the 2013 season. Only two truly stand out.
Getting the Ball Out Faster
The way that Ben Roethlisberger reacts to the pass rush is at the same time one of his better traits as well as his most frustrating. His skill to evade would-be sacks in order to extend a play, find an open receiver and keep drives moving is unrivaled in the NFL.
However, he doesn't always succeed—for every dazzling play he's made he's also taken incredibly hard hits. This style of play is hugely risky, and when the risks don't pay off, injuries have often been the result—Roethlisberger has played a full 16-game season only once in his career thus far.
Asking Roethlisberger to change is a common refrain among fans and analysts alike, especially after he suffers another injury. Even team president Art Rooney has requested that Roethlisberger alter his style of play, much to the quarterback's disdain. While that is, for the most part, nearly impossible—what gets Roethlisberger injured is often the very same thing that gets the Steelers wins—there are ways he can maintain his identity as a quarterback while slightly adjusting his decision-making under pressure.
In 13 games last season, Roethlisberger was sacked 30 times, or 2.3 times per outing. While far better than the 40 sacks of the previous year or the 50 he took in 2009, it's still not an ideal number. Though the offensive line takes some of the blame for this, the other problem with Roethlisberger's sack total is how it relates to how long he holds onto the football.
Unsurprisingly, the majority of Roethlisberger's sacks come when he holds onto the football for 2.6 seconds or longer. However, it took him an average of 2.73 seconds to attempt a pass last year according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Combine that with the fact that Roethlisberger's average completion percentage when he held the ball for 2.6 seconds or longer was 58.2, compared to 69.6 at 2.5 seconds or less, and it's clear that Roethlisberger would greatly benefit from shaving even a half-second off his average time-to-throw.
The switch to Todd Haley's short-yardage, ball-control offensive system last year would seem to result in Roethlisberger getting the ball out faster—he doesn't have to wind up as much or drop back as far to throw the long ball, for example—but his time-to-throw actually went up significantly in 2012, from 2.57 seconds the year before. Also worth noting about Roethlisberger in 2011 is that he performed far worse, completions-wise, when he got the ball out in 2.5 seconds or less, completing just 53 percent of his quick passes.
His improvement when it comes to completions on quicker throws shows that Roethlisberger has made significant strides in hurrying up his game, but last year's numbers aren't where they need to be, either. He's a better passer now than in 2011 when he gets the ball out quickly, but he needs to throw more quick passes if he's to decrease the amount of hits he takes from defenders.
Just because Roethlisberger is an effective improviser under pressure—his completion percentage for pressured passes last year was the third-best in the league—doesn't mean he should always hold onto the ball for as long as it takes. Just because he's physically tough doesn't mean he should be taking two or three (or more) sacks per game, every game. If Roethlisberger can improve his mastery of the quick throw, he'll keep himself better protected while still successfully making plays.
Assuring that a promising possession results in a touchdown isn't only the responsibility of the quarterback—the stars must align properly for the offensive line, the running backs, the wide receivers and the tight ends to best their defensive opponents. But when the quarterback's arm did the majority of the work to get the offense to the red zone, it's conspicuous when he struggles to lead the team to six points and they must settle for an attempt at three.
Last season, the Steelers scored 35 offensive touchdowns, with 27 coming via the pass (26 of those thrown by Roethlisberger) while a mere eight came via the run game, which was uncharacteristically terrible in 2012. They averaged 3.1 red-zone scoring attempts per game—a middle-of-the-road number—but only managed a touchdown on 1.7 of those attempts.
Their inability to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to them resulted in the Steelers averaging just 21 points per game in 2012, ranking them 22nd in the league. This has been an ongoing problem for the Steelers—their per-game points average in 2011 was just 20.5 while they scored 1.6 touchdowns on their 3.2 per-game red-zone appearances.
While there's a lot to be said for Roethlisberger's ability to throw deeper passes far removed from the red zone and for one of his speedy receivers to successfully run it in for a touchdown, a high failure rate when in the red zone is never acceptable. Add onto the fact that nearly every instance of the Steelers approaching their opponents' goal lines was the result of a good, Roethlisberger-led drive, and one can see how much the quarterback factors into the Steelers' scoring problems.
This issue does relate somewhat to Roethlisberger's issues getting the football out of his hands quickly. In the red zone, there's far less time to allow a play to develop—coverage on receivers is tighter, the defense is more aggressive and running lanes don't open in the same way, and all of this happens at a much faster pace than elsewhere on the field. Roethlisberger's average of 2.73 seconds to throw a pass is far too long for red-zone passing.
Though a proper red-zone strategy for Pittsburgh requires things like better separation for the receivers, an altogether more effective running game and an offensive line that can handle the close-in situations as well as they do midfield, it's often up to Roethlisberger to make the right decision. He has little trouble with this, generally, but in the red zone, he and the entire offense have been disappointing.
The Steelers need to score more points to keep up with the top teams in the NFL. They can't average points-per-game that rival the Buffalo Bills or Tennessee Titans and hope to improve on their 8-8 record from last season, let alone make the playoffs.
Roethlisberger is, for the most part, a consistently high-performing quarterback, but it doesn't translate to touchdowns when he leads the offense into scoring opportunities. The aspects about this that are under his purview, such as getting the ball out quicker, making faster, smarter decisions regarding who to target and reading defensive pressure, all need fine-tuning so that the Steelers can end drives with touchdowns and not field goals.
Though Roethlisberger has fewer issues he needs to work on than a great many other quarterbacks in the NFL, these two are still quite major. Though fixing them requires certain improvements by his fellow teammates on offense, the parts Roethlisberger can control must happen this summer for the Steelers to return to form in 2013.