Ben Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. He's also coming off of major elbow surgery that ended his 2019 season prematurely. The Steelers had the chance to move on from him, but are instead doubling down on a quarterback in decline.
Ben Roethlisberger will return to the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020. He threw 62 passes in two games last year before landing on IR. The Steelers relied on a combination of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges. Neither Hodges nor Rudolph played well enough to be long-term starters. The Steelers were never looking for a new starter either way.
After Roethlisberger injured his elbow in Week 2, the Steelers traded their first-round pick for Minkah Fitzpatrick. The idea of tanking after their 0-2 start never crossed their mind.
It should have.
Instead of looking for a long-term replacement, the Steelers gave Roethlisberger a two-year extension. He's one of the highest-paid quarterbacks in the NFL despite being 38, visibly out of shape and coming off major elbow surgery. The Steelers were given the perfect opening to hit the reset button by enduring just one down year. They passed so they could go back to a quarterback who hasn't played particularly well in a long time.
His raw stats during his thirties have been fine. He threw at least 28 touchdowns and averaged at least 7.5 yards per attempt from 2016-2018. His best years came under Todd Haley. Haley forced Roethlisberger to be more of a timing passer, staying disciplined in the pocket in the hopes of minimizing his mistakes and prolonging his career. Roethlisberger fundamentally disagreed with that philosophy.
Haley departed prior to the 2018 season. The Steelers promoted Randy Fichtner, Roethlisberger's preference, which led to him throwing 675 passes in 2018. He threw the ball more than he ever had and tied his career interception total. The Steelers starting quarterback was unleashed from the shackles of Haley, freeing him up to make costly mistake after costly mistake.
The Steelers went from 13-3 in 2017 to 9-6-1 in 2018. They only won one more game in 2018 with Roethlisberger compared to 2019, when they went 8-6 without Roethlisberger.
Interceptions were Roethlisberger's big problem in 2018. He threw 16 in total, but he threw 36 interceptable passes. His 5.3% interceptable pass rate ranked 28th out of 35 quarterbacks. But more importantly, he also played his worst football late in games. Roethlisberger was 33.6% accurate after the five-minute mark in the fourth quarter, the worst passer in the league. He had a 9.6% interceptable pass rate after the five-minute mark in the fourth quarter, the third-worst rate in the league.
Roethlisberger regularly cost his team the game, then came out afterwards to blame one of his teammates. It was astonishing to watch, but that's the kind of autonomy he has in Pittsburgh. Winning two Super Bowls means the fans will never see you as anything other than a hero. The front office and coaching staff should know better though.
The Steelers won games in which Roethlisberger threw multiple interceptable passes. He threw six in two games against the Bengals and three against the Patriots. The above play comes at the very end of the Jaguars game. The Steelers won 20-16 on a touchdown during the final 10 seconds of the fourth quarter. This play came two plays before that touchdown.
It's an interception that's negated by a penalty. It doesn't count as an interceptable pass. Ryan Switzer, the intended receiver, has his face mask pulled by the defender when he turns infield. That's why the receiver is on the ground when the defender picks off the pass.
While this play doesn't count, Roethlisberger's throw was terrible. Had DJ Hayden, the defender, not pulled Switzer to the ground, he still would have had the time to turn around and catch the ball in front of the receiver.
Hayden did commit the foul so the play doesn't count, either officially or as one of his 36 interceptable passes. But the process of what Roethlisberger did is symptomatic of what he did repeatedly through that season. Roethlisberger finds the right receiver, but his throw is short and late arriving. The ball needs to arrive with greater velocity further infield. His problems began when he moved sideways for no good reason. The interior of his pocket was intact.
In Week 1 against the Cleveland Browns, Roethlisberger threw two interceptions early in the game then had two dropped late on. On First-and-10 with 1:52 left in a 21-21 game, Roethlisberger missed Jesse James over the middle of the field. The ball goes through Derek Kindred's hands, falling incomplete. Had Kindred caught it, he would have guaranteed the Browns field goal range and potentially run the ball back into the redzone or beyond.
The Browns would have likely won the game from there. It wasn't a game-ending throw exclusively because of the defender's mistake and not the quarterback's execution.
Roethlisberger threw another interceptable pass on the final play of the game. There were only eight seconds left when he dropped back to try a hail mary. He didn't heave the ball deep downfield though, he escaped into the flat and tried to throw a touch pass over the middle. It went straight to a linebacker who could potentially have run the ball back to the endzone to win the game had he caught the ball.
He added another dropped interceptable pass at the end of the fourth quarter in Week 2 against the Chiefs. The Steelers were losing by 12 with almost five minutes left in the game. They wound up losing either way.
The Steelers faced a similar situation against the Ravens in Week 4. Roethlisberger had the ball in his own territory with 3:26 left in the fourth quarter. They were losing by two scores. It was a deep hole to come back from but this interception wasn't born out of an aggressive decision in a difficult situation. It emanated from mental laxity and technical imprecision.
Roethlisberger's feet widen and move sideways after his eyes are slow to come to the backside of the play. He throws the ball directly to the linebacker as if he had never even seen him. Antonio Brown was never open.
Even though the Steelers defence held the Ravens offence to a field goal, too much time went off the clock on the ensuing drive for the Steelers to make a comeback. More significantly, this was one of five interceptable passes Roethlisberger threw in the game. It was the only one that was caught.
With six minutes left in the third quarter of the Week 11 game against the Denver Broncos, the Steelers defence had contained the Broncos offence. The Steelers were winning 17-10. This was the type of game the Steelers could win last year. With their less-talented quarterbacks, they streamlined their offence and took a conservative approach. That meant avoiding mistakes that would gift the opposition good field position.
Roethlisberger might give you more opportunities to score points, he'll also give your opponents more opportunities to score points.
On this play, he has a clean pocket yet still forces the ball to a well-covered Antonio Brown. The ball isn't accurate. It goes in the vicinity of Brown, sailing over his head to the deeper defender who has an easy interception. Roethlisberger would compound this mistake with another interception at the death of the fourth quarter.
This is an RPO. As Roethlisberger explained after the game, the snap is off which disrupts the design of the play. The defensive lineman intercepts the ball because Maurkice Pouncey blocks him downfield into the passing lane. That explanation is all accurate. It puts a lot of blame on Pouncey. It's also accurate but wrong. It's wrong because even if none of that had happened, the defensive back had undercut Antonio Brown's route anyway.
Pouncey's snap and block just meant the defensive lineman caught the ball instead of the defensive back. Roethlisberger's throw was il-advised and his ball placement was bad. He forced a pass he shouldn't have thrown. Same as he had done in the third quarter.
That sealed the Broncos 24-17 victory.
He would go on to throw dropped interceptable passes at the end of the Chargers and Raiders losses over the following two weeks. Making such costly errors so often is obviously a major obstacle to winning games. The obvious counter-argument is that Roethlisberger does so much good to offset those mistakes that the overall outcome is positive. That's not really true either.
Over the second half of his career, Roethlisberger has played in stacked offences. Now the Steelers offence has dropped off in quality. When he was last on the field healthy two years ago, he was the second-least accurate quarterback in the NFL. Only rookie Josh Allen was worse than him. Pair that accuracy percentage with his interceptable pass rate and you get a bad omen for this season.
And that was when he was healthier.
Roethlisberger has never truly been fully healthy. He took such a beating over the first half of his career that he was always going to age rapidly. His body has endured three concussions, a broken nose, a shoulder sprain, a shoulder separation, a fractured rib, a separated rib, an elbow tear, a fractured thumb, a dislocated finger, an MCL sprain, a meniscus tear and six significant foot injuries (ankle, Achilles, foot fractures).
Expecting to get quality play from a 38-year-old, beat-up quarterback is one thing. Expecting to have him carry an offence because he doesn't want to play a complementary role while committing more than $30 million in cap space to him is something else altogether.
This decision to keep Roethlisberger hasn't received any criticism. His Super Bowl rings act as a barrier protecting him from all criticism. Roethlisberger is just an older Joe Flacco at this point. A quarterback far too far away from his prime, relying on the images of the past to justify his presence in the present.
Read more quarterback breakdowns on Off The Ball: