Ben Roethlisberger has long been considered one of the premier quarterbacks in the NFL, but does his play so far in 2017 reflect that of a player nearing the end of the line? Nicholas McGee takes a look at the film to find out.
This past offseason, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger mulled over retiring from the NFL. Roethlisberger’s flirtation with hanging up the cleats always seemed like hot air but, while the Steelers are again atop the AFC North through four games, he has looked like a quarterback closing in on the end.
He has long been one of the top quarterbacks in the league in the tier below the likes of Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers, and down the years has often saved the Steelers with his ability to escape the pocket and make magnificent throws down the field. Now, however, Roethlisberger seems ever more reliant on the weapons around him, missing consistently down the field and displaying concerning tendencies against pressure.
Pittsburgh’s comfortable win over the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4 came as a consequence of a dominant performance from running back Le’Veon Bell and the defense rather than anything spectacular from the arm of Roethlisberger, and the Steelers will likely have to continue to make efforts to hide his flaws in order to be successful this season. The veteran has consistently been one of the best deep passers in the NFL and, in 2016, ranked fifth in the league on throws of 20 yards or more, completing 36 of his 99 attempts for 1,170 yards, 14 touchdowns and four interceptions.
But there have been signs of his decline in his accuracy when pushing the ball downfield already this season, with two of the most egregious examples coming in their overtime loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 3.
On the first play Roethlisberger flutters a deep ball to Martavis Bryant, resulting in an inaccurate throw that is closer to the defender than the receiver, before later underthrowing Antonio Brown when he had a clear step on the opposing cornerback.
His inconsistent accuracy is not limited to downfield attempts, either; Roethlisberger has missed numerous throws that should be bread and butter for him.
The underthrown deep pass was one of multiple occasions where Roethlisberger failed to connect with Brown in the Bears game, with two efforts completely missing the Steelers’ top receiver due to rushed work in his set up. What would have been a short completion to Brown is instead thrown behind him due to Roethlisberger not setting his feet and transferring his weight into the attempt. He then makes a similar mistake by rushing a pass and sailing it over Brown’s head, wasting strong protection from the offensive line in the process.
Roethlisberger’s inaccuracy has manifested itself in multiple ‘interceptable’ passes. Last season, Roethlisberger threw 13 interceptions but, according to the Football Outsiders Almanac, his total adjusted interceptions number – which accounts for throws that should have been picked off by defenders – was 25, second-highest in the league behind Eli Manning.
There has been no improvement this campaign. Roethlisberger has already been picked off twice and that total could be higher. One of his interceptions came as a result of seemingly declining deep-ball accuracy, as his underthrown attempt down the middle was deflected into the arms of a Browns defender. He was also extremely fortunate not to be picked in the victory over the Minnesota Vikings, with his attempt to the sideline thrown way behind Brown and well within the grasp of Terence Newman, who was in perfect position to make the play.
Roethlisberger’s struggles with consistently throwing accurate passes risk derailing what should be one of the most fearsome offenses in the NFL and, while he has only been sacked on seven occasions, that number seems sure to increase should his developing penchant for holding on to the ball too long remain. On the below play against the Browns, he keeps the ball in his grasp despite having two receivers open on crossing routes and loses out on what would at least have been a short gain as he is dropped for a loss. He repeats the same mistake in Chicago, taking the sack with Eli Rogers available as a checkdown option that would have at least gained some yardage.
For all Roethlisberger’s developing deficiencies, he continues to produce play that offers a reminder of how good he can be, as this pass to Bryant from the Vikings game demonstrates. Bryant has to stretch somewhat to haul it in but the ball is accurate enough so that only the receiver has a chance to catch it, offering the single-high safety no opportunity to make a play on the ball.
When he is at his best, Roethlisberger’s status as a top-10 quarterback is unquestioned, with tight-window throws like the one he made to Jesse James in the Browns game posing little difficulty. His experience and poise is also evident in his ability to manipulate coverage and opposing pass-rushers, which he did against the Ravens with the use of the pump fake, resetting his feet before delivering a strike to Juju Smith-Schuster for the score.
Although his mobility has decreased, throws on the move, such as this one back across his body to move the chains, remain a part of his game even at the age of 35.
As long as Roethlisberger has the ability to make these type of plays, Pittsburgh will remain a contender. But an early review of his play in 2017 suggests he is becoming less accurate, more careless with the football and developing a tendency to hold on to the ball too long.
If those deficiencies start becoming more prevalent than Roethlisberger’s many positive attributes, then it may soon be time for him to lean towards hanging up the cleats.