Ben Roethlisberger looked old and tired. His heart wasn’t in it. The 14th-year veteran QB was just going through the motions. He seemed like he couldn’t wait for the greener pastures of retirement.
Oh, not on the field. In the postgame interview, which is where this discussion started. With reporters gathered around his locker asking in various ways why he and the offense stunk versus Jacksonville, Roethlisberger attempted to cut through the crap and get on with it.
By now, Roethlisberger knows that little good comes from answering postgame questions like these. As the team’s leader he took his lumps, blaming himself—and only himself—for the Steelers’ failures. Most fans read the quotes or heard them second hand. “Maybe I don’t have it anymore.” And, “I’m not playing well enough.” What they didn’t hear was Roethlisberger’s quick, dismissive tone. This was his version of Rasheed Wallace’s “Both teams played hard.” Or Drew Rosenhaus’s “Next question.”
Roethlisberger may not have realized that, from this, a narrative would form: Is the 35-year-old QB washed up? Does he even want to play anymore? We can’t judge whether Roethlisberger wants to play (a man’s inner desires aren’t evident on film). As for washed up? That depends on your definition of the term. Let’s run through Roethlisberger’s five interceptions against Jacksonville, since without those, this discussion would have never entered anyone’s mind.
The first was a great play by second-year stud corner Jalen Ramsey, who dove in front of a seam route to tight end Vance McDonald. The umbrage one could take with the play is that Roethlisberger should have been working the other side of the field. The Steelers noticed that whenever they had a line-of-scrimmage tight end as the widest guy in their formation, Jaguars safety Tashaun Gipson moved to cornerback for run-stopping purposes. So, the Steelers showed this formation, Gipson moved to corner, and then they motioned Antonio Brown out to that side, forcing Gipson to cover the league’s most dynamic route runner in space. Gipson was aided by other Jaguars zone defenders (the Jags were great in zone all game), but Roethlisberger hardly considered the matchup, instead working quickly on the other side to McDonald, a backup tight end facing the league’s best young corner. A questionable decision, perhaps, but nothing to do with a quarterback’s age.
Interception No. 2 was a pick-six to Telvin Smith. Defensive tackle Abry Jones tipped the ball at the line of scrimmage, but it very well might have been picked anyway. It was a slant to Brown. Roethlisberger assumed that Smith would follow his responsibility, Le’Veon Bell, to the flat. But Bell chip-blocked the defensive end first, delaying his release. That allowed Smith to stay inside, near the slant window. Another questionable QB decision and a great defensive play. Still, age not a factor.
The third interception, a Barry Church pick-six, came off a Ramsey deflection on a dig route to Brown. Roethlisberger was under some duress (Jacksonville’s pass rush made noise all day; on this play, defensive end Dante Fowler beat right tackle Chris Hubbard). From a closing pocket, Roethlisberger was a beat late and a foot high with the ball. That was all it took.
On interception No. 4, intended receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster fell down. Interception No. 5 stemmed more directly from pressure. Fowler hit Roethlisberger from behind and the ball floated to Gipson, a Cover 2 middle-hole defender. The Steelers were down 23-9 in the final minutes, so Roethlisberger was forcing the issue.
To recap four of the five picks: Two were questionable decisions and great defense, one was an unlucky break and one was a forced throw in desperation time. None of those relate to a QB’s diminishing abilities. This led to reporters asking Roethlisberger what’s wrong, and Roethlisberger trying to cut through the BS by just saying “maybe I don’t have it anymore.”
The third interception is the one we can dissect. Fowler’s pressure made Roethlisberger hasten his delivery, compromising some of his control. Roethlisberger is a Hall of Famer because he has a history of making unbelievable pinpoint throws downfield, under pressure. Would a 30-year-old Roethlisberger have had enough raw arm strength to make a better throw off a hastened delivery? Would a 25-year-old Roethlisberger tried to shake Fowler and extend the play before throwing? Maybe; we can’t know any of this for sure. But, for the sake of discussion, let’s say the answers is yes, a younger Roethlisberger would have found a way to make that play. Fine. But what about this game’s positive plays?
Roethlisberger had a half-dozen solid, nondescript plays on which the defense was identified before the snap and the ball was out right on time. A younger Roethlisberger would not have made those plays. This is Exhibit B for Roethlisberger’s a Hall of Fame candidacy: He’s the most evolved quarterback of his era. His elevated football IQ and discipline have turned the Steelers into one of the league’s most diverse offenses, while also extending Roethlisberger’s career. He takes far fewer hits than in his sandlot playmaking days, and he’s a more efficient all-around player.
If Roethlisberger’s physical attributes are diminishing—and that’s a big if; he made multiple strong-armed throws in the Jacksonville game that beat quality coverage, including an 18-yard deep-out to Antonio Brown on third-and-12 versus terrific double-team man coverage—Roethlisberger’s evolution can carry him another few years.
This is where the Steelers’ problems lie. Their evolved offense has yet to function on all cylinders. The smashmouth ground game that they rode down the stretch last season and have tried to ride early this year isn’t producing. The wide receiver screen game that makes them so dangerous in spread formations has been sloppy. Many of the deep-intermediate pass designs that leverage the quickness of Brown and speed of Martavis Bryant have lately been short-circuited by uncharacteristic offensive line breakdowns. (Even perennial Pro Bowler David DeCastro had several last Sunday.)
Ultimately, it’s on Roethlisberger to right this ship. The Steelers, immensely talented, can assume just about any offensive identity on a given week. But so far, none have looked good. And yet, the team is still 3-2. It’s too early to pronounce Roethlisberger “in decline.” And even if he were, it’s too early to label that a problem. He is set up to still flourish even when his physical tools start to diminish. Don’t sell your Steelers stock. And never read too much into anything Roethlisberger says in a postgame interview.
Film Note Elaboration
The question is, How will Cincinnati expands its offense to better feature Mixon? It’s only a matter of time. Will we see a package with Mixon and dynamic scatback Giovani Bernard on the field together?
Cause for Concern?
The Browns benched DeShone Kizer midway through last week’s loss to the Jets, and on Wednesday named Kevin Hogan the starter. It was the fourth straight game in which Kizer completed less than 50% of his passes. We’re starting to see the accuracy woes that plagued him at Notre Dame. Kizer is a strong-armed, athletic mover; the talent is there. But there are some in the NFL who believe accuracy can’t be fixed, not when it’s flawed to this degree.
Hue Jackson has not made it easy on his rookie QB. Jackson’s offense has featured more downfield route designs than any, save for maybe Arizona’s. A number of those routes occur in isolation, with the Browns counting on their subpar receivers to get themselves open. That makes Kizer’s reads more straightforward, but not necessarily easier. This isn’t to criticize Jackson, one of the league’s sharpest offensive minds. Kizer made these throws in college and, playing behind one of football’s best pass-blocking O-lines, he consistently gets the time and pocket space they demand. But you’re taking a trial-by-fire approach when you have a rookie QB play this way. Jackson must be willing to live with some growing pains.
Keep an Eye on
Dolphins first-round rookie defensive lineman Charles Harris. He has played mostly nickel defensive tackle this season, though last week he made noise as a pass rushing defensive end. He’s been disruptive the past few weeks. Playing with guys like Ndamukong Suh and Andre Branch, Harris will be part of some designer four-man rush tactics on stunts and twists. He has a wonderful opportunity to hone his technique.
We saw last year that the Texans can survive without J.J. Watt, great as he is. But they can’t survive without Watt andWhitney Mercilus. Mercilus was the fulcrum of their lethal five-man diamond pass-rushing front. Without his burst and agility, there’s no one for defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel to build his blitz looks around. Jadeveon Clowney is explosive, but he’s not pliable like Mercilus.
Non-Football Thing on My Mind
Can anyone explain why MLB teams have champagne locker room celebrations for winning a Wild-Card series? Even the easily offended baseball purists can’t defend this time-tested abomination tradition. Could you imagine Tom Brady putting on champagne goggles when the Patriots win a divisional-round game to advance to the AFC championship? Champagne celebrations for clinching an NL/AL playoff spot I understand. Baseball has a long season, making it a true accomplishment to reach October. And maybe popping a cork or two makes sense when you win the pennant—maybe. But all other celebrations? Childish and embarrassing.
• Question or comment? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.