Things aren't what they used to be in Pittsburgh. Is the quarterback part of the problem?
For a while, there was little question that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was one of the top passers in the league. With him under center, the Steelers reached three Super Bowls, winning two. His gunslinger throwing style and ability to extend plays made him not just exciting to watch, but also led to the Steelers' success when he became their starter in 2004.
Roethlisberger currently holds the ninth-highest career passer rating among quarterbacks with at least 1,500 pass attempts, at 92.3. He ranks seventh-overall in career average yards per attempt at 7.9 and 12th in completion percentage, at 63.1. He's the youngest quarterback to ever win a Super Bowl, doing so in his second season, was the Associated Press' Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2004 and has reached the Pro Bowl twice.
However, the Steelers haven't had a playoff win since the 2010 season, finished 8-8 in 2012 and are coming off their bye week with an 0-4 record, the worst start for the team since 1968. Though football is a team sport, one also influenced by coaching decisions and the front office, it's hard to not wonder how much of a hand Roethlisberger has had in the team's recent decline.
And Roethlisberger is a different quarterback now than he was when the Steelers were perennial Super Bowl contenders. His net yards per attempt are down significantly, at 5.69. His sack percentage is now at 8.5, after a career low of 6.3 last year. Though his completion percentage is steady at 63.6, he's thrown just five touchdowns to five interceptions already this season and has fumbled the ball five times.
What has happened to Roethlisberger?
The Steelers' Offense
Roethlisberger's former offensive coordinator, Bruce Arians, left town with Steelers fans saying "Good riddance," but in many ways Arians was the ideal play-caller for Roethlisberger. With a fit-the-scheme-to-the-players mentality, he was able to adapt to the unique talents of his quarterback.
That meant a spread-style passing game, with "hi-lo" routes for the receivers who played up Roethlisberger's ability to keep his feet moving, while his eyes scanned downfield for an open man. The Steelers put together a group of receivers suited for these jobs, with Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and tight end Heath Miller all complementary parts in the system.
When Arians gave way to Todd Haley, however, things changed drastically. Instead of a spread-influenced passing game that allowed Roethlisberger to continue to make plays the best way he's known how, Haley wanted to keep his quarterback better protected. After all, before Haley came in, Roethlisberger had been sacked 314 times and had only one season in which he played all 16 games.
However, this meant that Haley tried to change Roethlisberger. Gone was the option to go deep on every play, replaced by a dink-and-dunk ball-control offense that, while effective—the Steelers spent weeks as one of the best offenses in third-down situations in 2012 and had impressive time-of-possession stats—ran counter to everything Roethlisberger had done in his career thus far.
High-percentage, short passing is one way to keep Roethlisberger better protected. He took only 30 sacks in 2012, compared to 40 the year before. But it only works if it works. If Haley is asking Roethlisberger to change, fine, but the rest of the offense needs to comply, particularly the offensive line. Roethlisberger has already been sacked 15 times this year in only four games. It doesn't matter what kind of passes he's being asked to throw—the offensive line isn't complying.
The Arians system accounted for bad offensive-line play. In fact, there have been few lines Roethlisberger has played behind that could be considered top-performing units in the league. By allowing Roethlisberger to improvise and force coverage to break down naturally, he could make plays despite taking repeated punishment.
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Now, he's being held in check by Haley and, so far this season, he's taking punishment and not making enough plays.
Both Roethlisberger and Haley have tried to downplay the disconnection between the two, but it's clearly there. Haley sees Roethlisberger as a quarterback, in the sense that Tom Brady is a quarterback, or Drew Brees. However, this quarterback is completely different. There's no other like him in the NFL. The traditional modes of building an offense are thus different in Pittsburgh—but not for Haley.
Last year, Roethlisberger dipped into Arians' old playbook in no-huddle situations, and it worked. This season, his no-huddle calls have been some of the only successful ones we've seen for the Steelers. The Steelers' offense went from 12th in the league in yards in 2011 to 21st in yardage in 2012 and presently ranks 19th this season.
If Roethlisberger is ever going to look like the quarterback we are used to seeing, it won't be while Haley is calling the plays.
The Receiving Weapons
Another example of how Roethlisberger isn't Brady (and he doesn't need to be, though that's a different discussion) is that he cannot just magically coerce Pro Bowl talent out of just any receiver. With Roethlisberger and his targets, it is like a choreographed dance. Trust is required, as is communication. The quarterback and the receiver must fit together well.
For a time, Roethlisberger had the ideal setup in the ideal system. Under Arians' levels-and-spread passing offense, the weaponry was right. With Heath Miller and Antonio Brown he had reliable hands; with Brown, Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace, he had speed. With Wallace, he had a physical deep threat; with Sanders, an unexpected surprise in the slot.
All needed each other to work, however. When one cog needed replacement, Jerricho Cotchery was there. But when more than one is unavailable—he moves on in free agency, like Wallace, or suffers a significant injury, like Miller, who has just returned—it makes things that much more difficult.
Aside from Brown, none are reliable.
As often as Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin likes to trumpet the "next man up" philosophy, it's much harder to pull off in practice than it is in theory. The Steelers did not and do not possess a parade of Wallace clones or Heath-a-likes who can step up and play just as well as the starter or their predecessor. Few teams are that fortunate.
It is unsurprising, therefore, that Roethlisberger has thrown touchdowns on just 3.1 percent of his attempts, compared to 5.8 percent last year.
There's no true deep threat. Brown is as reliable as ever, but he's not going to scare defenders with his physical route-running, and neither is Sanders. Cotchery is physical but not fast. And though Miller is back on the field, he's still acclimating to the game. Issues in pass protection also mean that Miller is less available as a receiver than in years past.
Rookie Markus Wheaton is intriguing, touted in the draft as having similar speed and imposing on-field presence as Wallace. However, receiver is a difficult position to play well as a rookie, and he's only seen 56 offensive snaps, catching just three of the six passes thrown to him for 26 yards. He also has two drops. Wheaton could eventually become a major component of Pittsburgh's passing game, but it probably won't be this year.
For better or for worse, Roethlisberger isn't the kind of quarterback who can throw to any assemblage of receivers and have the same, consistently good results. Roethlisberger has dealt with many demands to change or adapt over the past two years, and not all of them have been with his actual best interests in mind.
The Accumulation of Injuries
One of the reasons Haley was brought in to be the Steelers' offensive coordinator was his promise to better protect Roethlisberger. He didn't plan to do this by revolutionizing the offensive line or running the ball better and more often. Instead, it was about the short-passing, high-percentage game. Quick, short throws would get the ball out of Roethlisberger's hands and prevent sacks and injuries.
While Roethlisberger was sacked a low-for-him 30 times last year, he still missed time, suffering an injury to his ribs that could have punctured his aorta along with a shoulder strain in Week 9 against the Kansas City Chiefs which cost him three games. The Steelers went on to lose two of those three games, contributing to their 8-8 finish.
Presently, Roethlisberger has a partially dislocated right index finger. Though not significant enough to keep him out of the Steelers' Week 6 game against the New York Jets, it's yet another dent on a quarterback who has suffered more than his fair share of them in his career.
Roethlisberger's list of injuries is long—it includes thumb, knee and head injuries, missed time after getting his appendix removed and foot, ankle and shoulder injuries. His style of play has a lot to do with this, but so do the shaky offensive lines he's played behind. Of course, football itself is a high-impact sport, and as a quarterback, Roethlisberger is going to get hit no matter how he plays the game.
Whether Roethlisberger bends to the whims of Haley or improvises the Arians playbook or never gets sacked again, the injury history still remains. And at 31 years old, that history has to be catching up with him, especially when it comes to his foot speed. The legendary scrambles that made his name aren't so shifty, and his burst isn't what it used to be.
This all looks like an argument in favor of Haley's new system and against Roethlisberger's push-back against change, but it's not. Yes, Roethlisberger's style of play has opened him up to many of the injuries he's suffered, but to force him into the pocket to quickly throw short passes doesn't take proper advantage of his talents.
Haley should be smarter than to square-peg-in-a-round-hole a 31-year-old quarterback who has led the Steelers to Super Bowls by being that very same square peg. The injuries have to be taken as part of the package, and everything else—the backup quarterback, the defense, the rest of the offense—has to be good enough to handle what seems to be the inevitable Roethlisberger missed time.
But it also doesn't deny the fact that myriad injuries have an accumulative effect that have both subtly and not-so-subtly changed Roethlisberger. Throwing stance and motion and speed during scrambles are all altered by age and injury.
What has happened to Roethlisberger? It's clear that, for the most part, these are outside influences that have changed his game for the worse. Haley is not the right coordinator for his playing style, and Roethlisberger shouldn't be asked to change that style, because it is a proven winner.
For injury and salary-cap reasons, the Steelers haven't been able to field a group of receivers this year with whom Roethlisberger is comfortable. Outside of Antonio Brown, none have produced, though Heath Miller should improve as he gets further removed from last year's knee injury.
Though a year older and still dealing with an injury (however minor), Roethlisberger is still the same quarterback, albeit in a system that doesn't want him to be the same and without a much-needed deep-threat receiver who makes him perform at his best.
What's the deal with Roethlisberger?
Roethlisberger's choices are few. He can try to become the quarterback Haley would prefer him to be, which would likely produce mostly negative results. He can stay the same, pushing back as much as he can against Haley until the Steelers realize they need a better-suited coordinator to lead the offense.
He has to make do with the receivers he has and their varying degrees of health, as well as navigate the passing game with an offensive line near the bottom of the league in pass protection, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Mostly, the Steelers have happened to Roethlisberger, and where that was once the source of playoff appearances and championships, it's now one of winless starts to the season and unanswered questions for the offense. All he can do is navigate the storm as best he can and hope his ship stays upright.
Stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference and Team Rankings unless otherwise noted.