The Evolution of Big Ben

With the defense in a transition state, the Steelers are relying heavily on an offense that's transformed into the league's best. At the helm is QB Ben Roethlisberger, who guides a unit teeming with young, rising stars
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As the Steelers undergo what they hope will be a smooth transition into a new era on defense, they fortunately have an offense they can lean on heavily in the meantime. In fact, it’s the best offense in the NFL. And it’s become that through very traditional means: by accumulating the best players.

Start with the man under center. (Oh actually, let’s mention the center. When Maurkice Pouncey is healthy, he’s one of those “best players.” His combination of athleticism and football IQ is second to none at his position; let’s hope he can bounce back from his recent ankle injury sometime before the holidays.) Ben Roethlisberger, 33, is coming off the best season of his likely Hall of Fame career—something no one would have imagined given how his sandlot style has so often left him battered and bruised.

That playing style has also been grossly under-appreciated. Because Roethlisberger looks like a big oaf, few have noticed that he’s one of the most remarkable athletes of his era. We’ve never seen a physical specimen quite like the 240-pounder. It’s not just that Roethlisberger can brush off would-be sackers; it’s that he does so without compromising his arm strength or accuracy, which are both tremendous. His brilliance is overlooked because it doesn’t appear smooth and polished. But that’s the inherent nature of it. Last season, according to ESPN’s Week 11 Monday Night Football broadcast, Roethlisberger’s quarterback rating after being contacted was 158, with an 80 percent completion rate. The league average for completion percentage in this category is 43.8. Let that sink in.

The reason Roethlisberger is coming off a career year—4,952 yards, 67.1 percent completion rate, 32 touchdowns and just nine interceptions—is that he’s evolved into a very fine pocket passer. It comes from a new sense of discipline, both in his mechanics and reads. No quarterback in the league has evolved more over the past decade.

Roethlisberger will only continue to get better in this capacity, especially given his rich supporting cast. By season’s end, Pittsburgh’s receiving corps will be the most feared in football. It starts with Antonio Brown, who complements his quarterback’s style perfectly. The 27-year-old has a sense for “uncovering” late in the play, when things break down. And he’s propagated Roethlisberger’s newfound success within structure by being the quickest, most precise route runner in the game.

Last season Brown led the league with 1,698 receiving yards and set an NFL record with 11 consecutive games with at least 80 yards through the air (dating back to the previous year). But by the end of this season, Brown may not even be the Steelers’ most dangerous pass catcher. As a fourth-round rookie in 2014, Martavis Bryant caught 26 balls. Eight of them reached the end zone. Six of those eight went at least 18 yards, and three went at least 35 yards. This past offseason, in an effort to get better against press coverage, Bryant added more than 10 pounds to his 6-foot-4, 211-pound frame. Assuming that doesn’t slow any part of him, the only thing keeping Bryant from 1,000 yards will be Markus Wheaton, an ascending possession receiver with his own sharp movement skills who also deserves touches. And let’s not forget, general manger Kevin Colbert just drafted Sammie Coates in the third round. Scouts project his best NFL attribute will be his ability to stretch the field.

Brown, Bryant and Wheaton are all superb in wide receiver screen concepts, which, with speed and quickness overflowing at this position, have become the Steelers’ primary method of getting the ball on the perimeter. Another critical piece in the screen game is running back Le’Veon Bell, who is dangerous not just out of the backfield but also from the slot and even split out wide. In fact, he can run a nearly full route tree, not just the bushes and shrubs of screens and flares. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley has said that Bell, who finished second on the team and first among all NFL backs with 854 receiving yards in 2014, is good enough to start at wide receiver in the NFL.

That will never happen, of course, because he’s already the game’s best all-around running back. Patience and vision amplify Bell’s combo of light feet and size. Though built to break through defenders, the 230-pounder is much more of a finesse runner, even with approximately four-fifths of his carries going between the tackles.

Through Bell, we’ve seen from Pittsburgh the real benefit of having copious talent on offense: the infinite possibilities for shuffling your scheme. Shortly after Haley joined the Steelers in 2012, many started to criticize his system. It was predicated on time-sensitive, three-step drop-backs and inside zone running—styles of play this offense, and especially its two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, had not embraced before. Even with a bumpy start to his tenure, the criticism of Haley was mostly unfair.

The Haley complaints are moot now anyway, because his “system” has expanded into so many different dimensions. The Steelers are the new Patriots; you don’t know what brand of football they’re going to play on a given week. Last year, for example, their inside zone running game down the stretch morphed into a high volume man-blocking ground game, featuring “counter” and “power” runs behind the superb pull-blocking of right guard David DeCastro. This was a smart adjustment, as the slower-developing runs played favorably to Bell’s patience and allowed tight end Heath Miller to block on the move, making him much more effective.

Another example of the system’s alterations was the spread game. The Steelers would go four-wide and split out Bell, creating an empty backfield. With Bell’s pass-catching prowess and the talent at wide receiver, this almost always ensured a favorable matchup somewhere. Empty sets, because they usually leave offensive linemen with no help-blockers, are naturally conducive to the three-step timing principles that Roethlisberger has honed under Haley. And, in Pittsburgh’s case, they’re an easy way to get the most talent on the field.

Ben Roethlisberger (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Ben Roethlisberger (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

But then go back to Weeks 8 and 9, when Roethlisberger erupted for six touchdown passes against the Colts and six against the Ravens. In these contests, the Steelers, catering largely to Bryant’s speed, featured more of a deep-dropping, vertical aerial assault. Haley shifted from the minimum five-man protections to six, and often seven-man protections. Roethlisberger, who normally would have treated this as a green light to go sandlot and let play structures break down, rewarded Haley with a calm, poised commitment to working through his progressions from the pocket. Those two games, and especially the first half of the Colts game, were as fine a quarterbacking display as you’ll see.

There were also times when the Steelers went with heavy personnel, using three tight ends (aka “13”) or two backs and two tight ends (“22”). This primarily was for the newfound power running game. How many teams can win with a four-wide spread and an overloaded heavy formation? And how many can still win on plays thatfall out of structure?

The Steelers will need all of these elements working in 2015. Their goal of 30 points a game is realistic and on par for the demands that their inevitable defensive growing pains will place on them.

Steelers Nickel Package

1. Mike Tomlin has an enviable swagger, the type of swagger that comes from having achieved major success as the NFL’s youngest head coach. But Tomlin’s greatest strength since accepting the Rooney Family’s job offer in 2007 has been his humility. Tomlin hails from the Tony Dungy tree. He was the Bucs’ secondary coach from 2001-05 and the Vikings’ defensive coordinator in 2006. In Minnesota, he ran what he learned under Dungy: a straight Tampa 2 scheme. When he joined Pittsburgh, he inherited a decorated 3-4 defense that was coordinated by Dick LeBeau, one of the founding fathers of the zone blitz. Dungy’s and LeBeau’s systems are, in many ways, almost antithetical. While other coaches in Tomlin’s position would have looked to make their mark and install their own system, Tomlin wisely took a back seat and let LeBeau carry on. The Steelers were firmly entrenched in 3-4 personnel and had finished in the top three in points allowed in two of the three years prior to Tomlin’s arrival. Tomlin has continued to afford his assistants considerable autonomy, and they’ve rewarded him with excellence. This is why Steelers fans shouldn’t be worried about Keith Butler, the previous linebackers coach who now takes over at defensive coordinator. Butler is part of a culture that will allow him the freedom to succeed. And, like his head coach, Butler is smart enough to not change a system that, despite a few recent struggles, really isn’t broken.

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2. Butler’s biggest challenge will be overcoming a slipshod secondary. With Troy Polamalu gone, the veteran ingenuity is no longer there. Free safety Mike Mitchell is now the secondary’s signal-caller, and he’s much more equipped to play strong safety, where there’s less emphasis on reads and spacing and more on attacking. If Mitchell doesn’t get better as a center fielder, this team won’t make the playoffs. Because when your projected starting corners are William Gay and his famous five-yard cushion, plus Cortez Allen, who fell more rungs last season than any other healthy NFL player still in is 20s, you’ll need your safety to atone for his teammates’ mistakes.

3. Recognizing their paucity of corners, the Steelers drafted Senquez Golson in the second round. That’s unusual for them. Typically, Colbert has waited to draft his corners in the middle rounds. (He still did that this year, too, taking another corner, Doran Grant, in the fourth.) Golson is already out for the season following a shoulder surgery. With the arrival of Brandon Boykin, it will be surprise if Grant gets significant snaps in 2015. There’s a reason no rookie Steelers corner has started more than nine games since 1997 (Chad Scott). The matchup zone concepts of this 3-4 pressure scheme are some of the most complex in football. No system takes more time to learn than Pittsburgh’s.

4. The system’s complexity explains why James Harrison is still around. Jarvis Jones, a 2013 first-rounder, battled injuries last year, but when he got healthy the coaching staff didn’t feel comfortable cycling such a young player back into the lineup midstream. Ideally, the Steelers would have liked to sign Harrison later in training camp. His presence only takes reps away from Jones and new first-rounder Bud Dupree. Harrison, at 37, doesn’t have the same speed and quickness that he possessed in his prime, but he’s still just as powerful.

5. It’s imperative that Lawrence Timmons build on his Pro Bowl season. At 29, he joins Harrison as the elder statesman in the front seven. And playing behind what will be an up-and-down front three (headlined by Cameron Heyward, and relying heavily on second-year pro Stephon Tuitt, who is currently nursing an ankle injury), he won’t have as much margin for error in reacting hard to misdirection fakes—something the explosive Timmons has always been wont to do.

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