The Enigmatic Game of Ben Roethlisberger
Every sport has guys that just don’t do things the way they’re supposed to be done. As much as coaches and front office people want to see the very embodiment of every textbook attribute they spend their lives either crafting or finding, sometimes you just have to accept that it may not be pretty, and it may not be how you want it to happen, but hell, it works.
Brett Favre was that guy for years in the NFL. It would drive Mike Holmgren insane, and nobody would ever point to Favre as a shining example of how to play QB to any young player, but you couldn’t deny the plays he made and the success he had. At some point you have to kind of throttle back, and let him be himself. Tony Romo has drawn comparisons to Favre for some of those same attributes, as has Jay Cutler, but the new Favre is most definitely Ben Roethlisberger, except ‘Big Ben’ has some tricks in his toolbox that Favre never had.
The Steelers’ signal-caller might be the most unconventional quarterback in the NFL. Sure there are guys with funkier deliveries, or guys like RGIII for whom entire offenses are crafted around given their unique skillset, but there isn’t anybody else that has so many unique qualities all rolled into one.
Everybody knows that Roethlisberger doesn’t exactly play the game as it’s drawn up on the chalkboard. There is endless debate among anybody who covers the Steelers as to how much he hurts or helps his offensive line given the length of time he holds the ball vs. his ability to extend plays, but there is so much more to his game than just scrambling for his life until a throw opens up.
“Our quarterback can beat up your linebackers!”
That was a quote once used to describe Daunte Culpepper, back when the league had never really seen a quarterback over 250lbs, and the notion of linebackers just bouncing off quarterbacks to the floor was ridiculous. Passers with that size still don’t exactly grow on trees, but it’s at least common enough for people to take it in stride when ‘Big’ Ben Roethlisberger stiff arms a linebacker or defensive lineman to the turf.
He is tough to take down. You’re talking about a guy who outweighs most linebackers he’ll face and plenty of pass rushers in today’s era of situational rush specialists. It’s one thing to take a guy to the ground who isn’t fighting to stay upright, even if he isn’t much smaller than you are, but Roethlisberger doesn’t hit the deck without a fight. Getting the pressure is only half the job when he is under center, you also need to corral him in the pocket and then eventually drag him to the ground, all before he can get rid of the football. That’s not easy.
Flashbacks to Tarkenton
When most quarterbacks are pressured into leaving the pocket they’re looking to either run immediately, using their athleticism to pick up yardage, or they head to the sideline away from the pressure, see if anything opens up downfield, and then pass or throw the ball out of bounds. Roethlisberger doesn’t settle for that, though he will do both of those on occasion. Instead, his tape is littered with plays that could have come straight out of a Fran Tarkenton highlight reel. He will change direction, juke, spin and scramble around behind the line of scrimmage for as long as he can remain elusive or until he can find a pass to hit. The thing that makes them different is that they’re using their athleticism simply to buy time, rather than to get out of trouble and abandon most of their passing targets.
Take this simple 2nd-and-10 play from the Dallas game this year. The Steelers are on the edge of field goal range at the Dallas 30, with Roethlisberger in the gun after an incomplete pass on first down. The play is designed to be a simple 2.5 second drop and throw, with Heath Miller hooking up five yards down field. Instead of taking those five yards, Roethlisberger wants one of the double moves he has working downfield to the outside, so he pump fakes and waits for either receiver to uncover. Neither does, and so he continues to climb the pocket before ducking under the pressure from that edge. He fakes past another rusher, scoots to his left and eventually delivers the ball to Heath Miller, his original slam-dunk target, down the right sideline for a touchdown… 8.4 seconds after the ball was snapped.
That kind of ability to scramble around and yet stay within viable striking distance of the whole field buys receivers the time and space to just drift off to an area uncovered by the defense, exactly like Miller does here. You can’t expect coverage to hold up for eight seconds, it’s just not realistic. Somebody is going to blow it given that much time to try and adjust on the fly.
This is the great balancing act Roethlisberger brings. He is only pressured at all on this play because he holds the ball too long and climbs the pocket too far, causing his right tackle to lose leverage on his block and the entire protection scheme to collapse around him, but at the same time his ability to avoid that pressure for another five seconds is what opens up the pass to Miller and turns a five-yard gain into a touchdown.
The Pump Fake and Next Level
Nobody in football has a better pump fake than Roethlisberger. Unlike some quarterbacks who just give a little shoulder feint or slight movement with the football, he is able to throw practically a full pass and then pull it back in and reload. That’s a game-changer for defensive backs who are usually able to distinguish a pump fake from a pass by other quarterbacks but can’t do the same thing when they’re facing the Steelers. At PFF we record the time between the snap and the ball leaving the quarterback’s hands, and Roethlisberger’s pump fake has become my own personal hell over the past couple of seasons. It’s so effective and convincing that even after watching the play and screwing up once – even knowing it’s coming – it can still sucker you into hitting the button on the stopwatch early.
Imagine being an NFL safety, keying in on the quarterback and needing to read things early to have any hope of beating the ball to the receiver. That pump fake is enough to make those guys jump on passes he never has any intention of throwing, taking them yards out of position and opening windows deep down field. I’ve spoken to NFL safeties who couldn’t talk enough how much they hate that weapon.
But despite all of this, the thing that is most unique about Roethlisberger is something I don’t think I have ever seen another quarterback do consistently – he moves around behind the line of scrimmage with the sole purpose of shifting defenders in coverage.
While most passers see the field almost in two dimensions, with coverage defenders and receivers moving around in front of them, Roethlisberger sees a third dimension: how those defenders react when he moves from the top of his drop.
I don’t think there is another quarterback in football that can deliberately move players in coverage the way Roethlisberger can. Some passers will understand that when they’re moving out towards the sideline they can force a linebacker caught in no man’s land to play them instead of the receiver, drawing him forward before dumping the ball over his head, but Roethlisberger is the only one that will move from the pocket solely to make that happen, rather than simply reacting to pressure and taking advantage of the situation. He is proactive rather than reactive in this regard.
Take this play from last year against the Redskins. Facing 3rd-and-Goal from the Washington 7, the Steelers line up with a bunch formation in tight to the right, two receivers to his left and Roethlisberger alone in the backfield in the gun.
The first thing to understand about this play is that Roethlisberger is only ever trying to get the ball to Heath Miller, aligned at the top of the bunch and covered well by the Redskins initially. Instead of going through his progression and trying to find a better target, he instead just starts working his way through his bag of tricks to try and free Miller from the coverage.
After seeing the defense drop into coverage he isn’t worried about Lorenzo Alexander, the linebacker in man coverage on Miller. Roethlisberger is confident that Miller can lose him if he gets the chance and with his back to the quarterback, Alexander doesn’t stand much chance of making a play on the ball in such tight quarters. The player that he needs to deal with is London Fletcher, the middle linebacker with eyes only on the quarterback, ready to jump any pass put in that direction.
The first thing he tries in order to shift Fletcher is a pump fake. He looks left in the direction of Jericho Cotchery and fires a full-motion pump fake, but Fletcher barely takes a step in that direction. Next he leaves the pocket through the strong-side A-gap and instead of making straight for the goal line – a good chance of scoring, but one that would require running into at least one tackle attempt – he flattens out his run, drawing Fletcher up towards him just enough to allow Miller to sneak in behind for the touchdown pass.
Watching Steelers tape from last season is fantastic. You can see Todd Haley trying to contain Roethlisberger within the offense, trying to rein him in like a horse than just wants to bolt. The opening of every game would begin with a series of short, rhythm passes as the Steelers tried to march down the field in little passing increments exactly by the book. But Roethlisberger just isn’t that type of quarterback. He can do it, sure, but trying to limit him to that is to take away what makes him special. By half time in most games you could see the point that he mentally thought “to hell with this!” and suddenly pump fakes, scrambles and endlessly extended plays are everywhere.
At some point you have to embrace the fact that it might not be by the book, but it is a nightmare for defenses to deal with. Roethlisberger may never appear in any coaching manual, but he is one of the toughest passers to defend in football, and he has a host of unique qualities that make his game truly enigmatic.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam