Will Big Ben Evolve?

It is certainly debatable whether or not the Pittsburgh Steelers have the worst offensive line in football. There’s no question that over the past few seasons, the big men up front have been the primary reason why this team has struggled. Yet, there is also so much more to the story.

Ben Roethlisberger is a good quarterback, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback. He has a strong arm and an uncanny ability to make plays on his own when things break down. For years, he’s been difficult to get to the ground for pass rushers. As Bengals Head Coach, Marvin Lewis, said last year before playing Pittsburgh, “We can get to Ben, but can we get him down?”

However, the style of play we’ve seen from Roethlisberger over the last ten years is not sustainable after a certain point. You can’t ask your quarterback to run around and make something out of noting on a consistent basis. Sure, it’s nice to have that ability and it can certainly be an advantage, but with an aging signal-caller like Big Ben, there needs to be more balance and precision in the offense.

The Steelers have thrived throughout the Roethlisberger era because they’ve had one of the best defensive units in football, one that has been historically great at times. While the Steelers were winning two Super Bowls and three AFC Conference titles from 2005-2010, Ben wasn’t asked to put up 30 points a game or run a sophisticated offensive system. He made just enough plays using his powerful arm and scrambling ability. It was the defense that made those teams great, sometimes winning games all by itself. Ben’s play-making ability was a perfect complement.

Times have changed though. With new rules in the NFL favoring passing games, as well as an aging group on defense that is nowhere near as dominant as it used to be, the leaks in this team are far more evident. Big Ben is being asked to carry the load and take on new responsibilities as the team’s quarterback. Enter Todd Haley.

Understandably, the Steeler’s coaching staff does not want Roethlisberger to continue playing the way he did in his formative years. Instead, with Haley as the new offensive coordinator, Ben is being asked to make quick decisions and get the ball out of his hands. The coaches know how shaky their O-line is and they don’t want to turn each game into a playground match with Roethlisberger running all over the place and taking serious hits that could jeopardize his health.

The Steelers are also blessed with receivers who have above-average speed. The design of Haley’s offense has been for Big Ben to make quick throws to these speedsters who can then get out in space and get chunks of yards. That’s the goal anyway.

Unfortunately, this system has not worked, but not for the reasons you are led to believe. The media can speculate on how abrasive Haley is, or how this system doesn’t take advantage of Roethlisberger’s “broken-play” ability, but that’s nonsense. No one has stopped him from improvising on his own and creating big plays. Coaches on the sideline can’t control that anyway. And quite frankly, Roethlisberger has had to given the consistent breakdowns on the offensive line.

But you don’t win championships behind random, sandlot plays alone. This is the NFL, where the difference in talent between the worst and best teams isn’t that substantial. As a result, there has to be a plan in place. Otherwise those great individual plays that make all the weekly highlight shows will be separated by a game’s worth of negative or ineffective plays.

The reason Haley’s system hasn’t worked is because Roethlisberger is not a seasoned, precise and crisp passer. He isn’t a quarterback who’s going to come to the line and dissect defenses pre-snap. He’s also not used to making quick, accurate throws on a consistent basis. Several times over the past few weeks, he’s either missed open receivers and hot reads against the blitz, or thrown too late, resulting in turnovers, incomplete passes, and ultimately missed opportunities.

Teams are playing more press coverage against Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, forcing Roethlisberger to hold the ball longer than expected. And with that below-average group of lineman he has “protecting” him, he’s often under pressure quicker than most other quarterbacks.

So where should the Steelers go from here? A consistent running game would help. Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell could easily become a top-10 back in this league. He has the vision, speed, and power to do so. In fact, in the Steelers’ best offensive performance of the season, Week 7 vs the Ravens, they ran the ball all game (29 times for 141 yards). Bell was responsible for 93 of those yards. This took tremendous pressure off Roethlisberger, giving him more time to look downfield on play-action and take advantage of his big arm. However, due to inconsistency on the offensive line, these types of games have been few and far between.

We are not sure if the Steelers have another title run in them with this group of players. Do a few simple adjustments need to be made, or is it going to take a major overhaul? That remains to be seen. The most interesting question, though, is whether or not Ben Roethlisberger will evolve as a quarterback. His inconsistent accuracy and inability to dissect defenses before the snap might ultimately be what keeps him from being mentioned with the NFL’s elite passers.

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