Ben Roethlisberger is a convenient scapegoat, but the Steelers have bigger issues
The last meaningful play in the Steelers’ stunning 24-10 loss to the Bengals on Sunday was, from the outside, a control pass to a running back at fourth and 10 points in which the back received the ball a full 17 yards from the first scorer with six defenders to beat.
It was easy for everyone to laugh at, using it as a sort of indictment on the age of Ben Roethlisberger, characterizing him as some kind of tired old man who preferred to just waddle off the field and call it that one night rather than dancing around the pocket and trying to shake things up. But the truth was the Bengals were playing what Roethlisberger called a “picket fence area,” which he aptly identified despite Cincinnati disguising it a bit at the snap. Usually a piece like the one the Steelers were Assumed running in this situation is actually the right decision. Pittsburgh wanted Najee Harris to get the ball with some room to run and were hoping to free up offensive linemen to come out ahead and block. The game would have benefited from the momentum from the rear, theoretically giving him a chance to knock down defensive backs sitting on their heels on the first try.
But it was what Roethlisberger said afterwards that seemed to be more revealing of his current situation.
“Looking back, you know, maybe we should have shot in the end zone,” Roethlisberger said. “I wish that I had done that.
It could have been the repeated line of a player who is going to receive most of the blame for Pittsburgh’s current and less than ideal place at the bottom of AFC North. He couldn’t say, for example, that Harris had dropped four balls in the second half or that Pittsburgh’s seven total second-half drops were the biggest in the second half since 2006, according to ESPN Stats and Information. He couldn’t say he had time to throw the lowest in the NFL, or that before Sunday he had been pressured into more than 30% of his shots.
Of course, Sunday’s loss to the Bengals illustrated how stuck the Steelers are. They make a competitive team in part because their quarterback can still dissect and recognize opposing defenses and get rid of the ball quickly, but they haven’t figured out how to properly merge a game plan with their current physical reality. Some clubs can do this fairly quickly. It took a little over half a season for the Buccaneers to find the midpoint between what Tom Brady was capable of and what Bruce Arians had always expected. Pittsburgh is still crawling through this swamp.
And this team will finish absolutely better this season in the final standings than they would if they fielded a rookie quarterback. Take a look around the league on Sunday at what the QB Class of 2021 has offered us so far, and you can follow that thought process even if you’ve chosen to disagree. But are the Steelers delaying the inevitable year of development of a future quarterback in exchange for something worthwhile? Or will 2021 finally be the year no one calls the shots in Pittsburgh, or calls to speak on the radio thinking they should, or be right?
That’s the other weird thing about Roethlisberger’s comment: that he also seemed to contain a pinch of what he knew he knew things might have been in seasons past. Of course, the right decision at this point may have been to charge his first-round back with space and blockers, trying to break through the fence area like a corner player on a kick. mail. But maybe there was a time when Roethlisberger could have just hung in the pocket, allowing the defenders to roll over him like sweat on their eyebrows, and thread a missile between the defenders.
Perhaps there was a time when Roethlisberger didn’t need to aim for his running back 19 times in a game, largely ignoring the top third of the pitch except for a handful of attempts in depth and left.
So it goes, for a team that seems to be spinning in opposite directions at the same time. There is a quarterback who can always help quite to avoid a loss to the surprisingly capable Bengals, but not as good as they once were. There is a collection of explosive skill players that inflate expectations. There’s a struggling offensive line and a new coordinator is trying to tie it all together. The quarterback may be the handy person to blame here. But the context around it should color the way you watch a season unfolding both as many of us expected and yet still surprisingly unfolding.
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