The Enigmatic Game of Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger's game is unlike that of any other quarterback in the NFL. Sam Monson breaks it down.

| 4 years ago
Big Ben 1

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


| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN and NBCSports.

  • Chris B

    I hate the Steelers, but agree with this.

  • Alex K

    As a Steelers fan I just want to see Ben put up some points. Ben is a good player but that fact never seems to come through on the scoreboard. His style can create big plays like you outline. But it just isn’t consistent enough to really rack up some points.

    • Dan

      A running game that’s better than mediocre will help. The Steelers haven’t ranked in the top 10 in rushing yards or YPC since 2007.

      • Alex K

        True, our running game has been bad for years. But Brady, Rodgers, Brees and the other top QB manage to put up points anyways. I’m not sure that a medicore running game is an excuse for not scoring in the modern NFL.

        • Dan

          The difference is, the Patriots, Saints and Packers offenses are all capable of running the ball when they have to, which helps sustain drives. The Steelers offense hasn’t had that ability in years, and it’s reflected in their abysmal goal-line and short-yardage running game.

          And for the Saints and Packers, it helps that Sean Payton and Mike McCarthy are both superb at designing offenses and calling plays.

  • [email protected]

    There is a QB who comes immediately to my mind when i read the article and that is Russell Wilson. Big hands: check. Holds the ball: check. Makes big plays: check. Comparison to Fran Tarkenton: check.

    • JD

      Takes more than a single season to try and compare to Tarkenton. Russel shows signs of being great, but he has to be able to do it over 5+ years consistently, but Pete I have a feeling will implode as he has in past with anything he does.

      • [email protected]

        This is silly, they showed video side by side of Russell Wilson and Fran Tarkenton on the NFL broadcast. If i wanted to say something negative about ‘big ben’ i’d talk about character and work ethic.

      • Arif

        What he’s saying is that there are style similarities, not that Wilson was as good as Tark. It doesn’t take a few seasons to get a sense of a QB’s style, and I think the comparison to Tark is spot on, despite being a Vikings fan who values Tarkenton’s unique play.


    Ben is fun to watch. The comparison to Favre is spot on. Ben idolized John Elway growing up and compares himself to Elway, but Elway more consistently played by the book and only became electric when absolutely necessary. (Although he was one of the best under immediate pressure) Thanks for the article; maybe it will make more appreciate Ben’s style of play.

    • Madi

      You might be right about Elway being more by the book and less frequent with his “electricity,” but I think Ben actually is closer to Elway than Favre. Although really, with his combination of attributes, none of the comparisons will be spot on because he’s one of a kind.

      The thing that bothers me about the Favre comparisons (and there are definitely similarities) is that Favre was often just careless with the football. Ben will throw picks like everyone else, but they’re for the normal reasons – bad reads, bad throws, didn’t see the guy. He doesn’t just throw them up there for the hell of it, which Favre did all the time. That’s an attitude Ben takes with his legs, but not his arm.

  • Fierceblues

    Nicely done…..loved the article, welcome relief from a lot of the “fluff” being posted this time of year!

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    Excellent article. One thing I’d add is that for a chunk of the season, the Steelers ran conservative plays on first and second down, resulting in third and longs. Then Ben cut loose on third down and was ridiculously efficient. That led to a 6-3 record, despite a repeatedly subpar running game and a weaker start than normal for the defense.

  • Carl Eagan

    Tomlin is not one of Big Ben’s fan’s. It’s probably ego because he didn’t draft him. That is why Gilbert a right tackle who is very strong but basically immobile has been earmarked for left tackle against the very fast and mobile pass rushers. While Mike Adams a true left tackle because of his strength and mobility is slated for right tackle. Why hasn’t anything been mentioned that Big Ben has to be mobile and an excape artist because of Tomlin’s poor choices in O-line coaches and signing guys like Whimper.

  • Dan

    So basically, there’s a method to his madness, and what most people consider “dumb” is really just different.

  • John A

    This was fantastic! You really have a great depth of football knowledge that is present throughout the article but especially evident in the second to last paragraph when you describe the interaction between Ben Roethlisberger and Tod Haley! Well done!

  • Kevin

    The difference, Farve never missed a game. Get it out of Ben’s hand quick so he doesn’t miss the second half of the season like the past few years.

  • citizenstrange

    Roethlisberger can do everything except score points. The Steeler offense is consistently in the bottom 10 in points scored. It used to be OK because the Steeler defense could carry Roethlisberger on its back to five or six 13-9 wins every year but last year with Roethlisberger throwing so many game ending pick 7s and pick 3s that is no longer possible.
    The Steelers defense was #1 in the entire NFL and Roethlisberger could not even get them into the playoffs. The year before he got way outplayed by Tim Tebow to go one and done.
    Roethlisberger will be lucky to get three more playoff wins much less Super Bowl wins.

    • Dan

      Last season, the Steelers, as a team, ranked 8th in the NFL in TD passes, and that was with Roethlisberger not playing for three games. At the pace he threw TD passes last season, a full 16-game season would have produced 33 TD passes — one fewer than Tom Brady, four fewer than Peyton Manning, six fewer than Aaron Rodgers, one more than Matt Ryan, and seven more than Eli Manning. Those 33 TD passes would have improved the team’s TD pass ranking from 8th to 5th, but it only would have improved the team’s total scoring output from 22nd to 15th. So if a team can rank in the top five in TD passes but only be mid-pack in scoring overall, or rank in the top 10 in TD passes but barely escape the bottom 10 in scoring overall, then a smart, logical football fan would reach the conclusion that whatever scoring problem there is has nothing to do with the passing game. Last season, the Steelers scored a grand total of nine TDs by means other than the pass, which ranked them 30th in that regard. Only the Raiders and Jaguars were worse. Of those nine non-passing TDs, eight were scored by the running game, one by the defense, and none by the special teams.

      Everybody said last season that Michael Turner was a disappointment, but he still had more rushing yards than any Steelers RB, and scored more TDs than all Steelers RBs combined. So if he’s a disappointment, then what’s that make the Steelers’ running game last season, other than pathetic? It ranked 26th in yards, 29th in YPC and 27th in TDs. In fact, it hasn’t ranked in the top 10 in any of those categories since 2007. Making matters worse, the Steelers offense ranked 21st in average starting field position last season, well behind the Packers (2nd), Giants (4th), Broncos (7th), Falcons (11th) and Patriots (13th). The worse the average starting field position, the longer an offense has to drive to score — and if there’s no viable running game, then sustaining those drives becomes much more difficult.

      It’s no wonder the Steelers unraveled after Roethlisberger’s injury. He was literally a one-man offense last season. Up to the moment of his injury, he had a TD/INT ratio of 17/4, the highest third-down passer rating in the NFL by a mile, an overall passer rating of 100.0, and five of nine games with completion percentages in the 70’s. Once he suffered a six-week injury to his throwing shoulder and adjacent rib, they had nothing on offense. Gee, you don’t suppose a QB’s performance might deteriorate if he suffers an injury to his throwing shoulder, and he’s forced back into the lineup three weeks prematurely because his team is suddenly down to its third-string QB? By the way, he was injured on his 18th sack of the season, which occurred during the 10th game of the season, so no, he wasn’t getting sacked too much. In fact, his sack percentage dropped from 7.2% in 2011 to 5.4% at the moment of his injury in 2012 despite the offensive line being essentially the same as 2011, which illustrates that the pass protection problems for the Steelers in recent years had far more to do with the system than the QB. (And it’s no coincidence that Andrew Luck took such punishment last season, for that matter.)

      Quite frankly, your analysis of Ben Roethlisberger is not credible. If you take any QB who’s supposedly better than he is, and you give him an impotent running game, an offensive line with perennial injury problems, a dislocated throwing shoulder and adjacent rib, and only three weeks to heal from a six-week injury before throwing him back into the game, then his performance is going to deteriorate, period. Great, Roethlisberger has a good defense. Too bad his defense doesn’t block or run the ball for him.

      • citizenstrange

        Opposing defenses stack 15 men in the box and DARE Roethlisberger to win with his arm. He can’t. Last season Roethlisberger could not get a single win when the Steeler defense gave up over 17 points. The Steelers win or lose with their defense. Roethlisberger is just along for the ride at best. You are aware that Roethlisberger could not get a win in a HOME game of playoff like win or go home importance when the Steeler defense only gave up 6 points to the Bengals? That sucks right? No? That’s “good?” Really? Roethlisberger is a bottom 10 quarterback. To compare him to Rodgers is what is not credible.

        • Dan

          Wow, I was too polite when I said you’re not credible. You’re just plain full of shit.

          • citizenstrange

            When you resort to personal attacks you have lost the argument.

          • Dan

            That’s provided the person you’re arguing with has a valid argument in the first place. You did not. You lost the moment you typed.

  • cheap -nfl-jerseys

    Ben is a good player,I like