The Steelers quarterback has a cupboard full of receivers and the experience to use them.
In his 17th season as the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, Roethlisberger has 22 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, A 5.5 TD-INT ratio that is easily the best of his career. Ben Roethlisberger is the leader of the Steelers, and the Steelers passing game is rolling through opponents.
The last few games, the Steelers have struggled to run the ball, and that is a problem. Here at BTSC, we’ve covered the Steelers run game a lot, from Matt Canada’s motions and the run game’s early success to the offensive line play of starters and backups, and the last few weeks the way defenses have adjusted to the Steelers offense and have found ways to counter the Steelers run game as well as their short passing game.
Some of that showed up in week 10, specifically against the Steelers jet motions and outside run game. I covered that in this weeks Vertex with Dave Schofield. If you want to really dive into the defensive chess match I’ll cover a bit in this article, read that one and the one before it where we cover how Mike Vrabel and the Tennessee Titans solved a lot of what the Steelers like to do, especially out of single back formations.
If you just want to see Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers receivers light up the Bengals, that works too.
Getting Roethlisberger going
The Steelers quarterback didn’t get off to the fastest start in week 10, missing a good number of throws in the wind, but also being a little off in his timing and processing. The Steelers still found ways to move the ball, relying less on their quarterback’s arm, and more on the ability of their receivers.
1st quarter, 14:53. Diontae Johnson is the receiver in motion.
The Bengals are in zone here, and the Steelers attack it by running Diontae Johnson behind Chase Claypool and JuJu Smith-Schuster, two very good blocking wide receivers. Johnson gets the first down pretty easily.
1st quarter, 12:08 JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver in the backfield to the top of the screen.
The Bengals linebacker is late reacting to Eric Ebron’s motion, and Ben Roethlisberger thinks he might have a wide open target because of it, but the linebacker catches up quickly and Roethlisberger is late getting the ball to Smith-Schuster, and a wide open run lane is for naught.
You can see below the moment the catch is made.
Smith-Schuster’s momentum is still to the right, and by the time he secures the ball and tries to cut upfield, he’s already in the defender’s reach.
This is what happens when timing is just a bit off, the ball is delivered a half-second too late and instead of a first down on 3rd and 3, the Steelers settle for a field goal despite the punt cover team handing them great field position on a fumble recovery.
Ben Roethlisberger would start the game with 5 completions on 10 throws, for only 42 yards. 4.2 yards per attempt isn’t good. But that would all change late in the 1st quarter, at the start of the Steelers fourth drive of the game.
1st quarter, 2:52. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the top of the screen.
Really nice throw from Ben Roethlisberger, and just as good a route from Diontae Johnson.
That second outside move (watch his relationship to the sideline to see just how far he moves) is critical to this route’s success, and I’ll get back to it. This was so much more than just a big play, and the significance of it changed the game.
Here’s a shot of the Bengals defense at the snap.
That’s 8 defenders on screen, they have two outside corners and the free safety deep and this 8 man defense, with 4 payers lined up roughly 5 yards off the line of scrimmage. This is how Mike Vrabel stymied the Steelers 11 personnel offense in week 6, and how every team since has stuffed the run game and the short passing game. We’ve been talking about the Steelers needing to connect on those deep balls outside, and this is why, there isn’t much available in the run game or in the passing game to the middle of the field.
Now let’s get back to that second outside move by Diontae Johnson. You can see the corner let him off the line only to physically try to disrupt his route 10 yards off the line. That strategy has been crushing the Steelers deep passing for weeks, but here Diontae Johnson beats that interference, and Ben Roethlisberger nails the pass to finally beat this defense.
But they weren’t done exploiting Mike Vrabel’s counter to the Steelers offense. The next two plays they would bury it.
1st quarter, 2:20. James Washington is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
The Bengals have 7 in the box vs. the Steelers 6 blockers, leaving the receivers in man outside with a single high safety. Watch the offensive line, the Steelers block for their off-tackle run that I talked a lot about in this week’s Vertex. They brought back that RPO here and hit James Washington on a quick out. They even ran the back-side slant that the Browns sat on and nearly picked off in week 6.
With the Bengals focusing so much on stopping the jet sweeps and outside cutbacks they leave that slant open, and with the corners off looking to impact receivers later in their routes, James Washington is open for a quick 5 yards that he turns into significantly more.
1st quarter, 1:54. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
And then there is this beauty. A perfectly placed ball right where the Steelers knew there would be a gap because of the spacing this defense gives. The seam routes from the slot are taken away in this defense, but for the outside receiver it is open. You can see the defender on the hash mark to Johnson’s side, he’s got any vertical route from the slot easily handled, but he’s no help in covering Johnson. By the way, that slot receiver is James Conner. The Steelers are in 11 personnel on this play, in an empty set look.
It took a few weeks, but the Steelers finally had success attacking this defense that was forcing them to abandon the run altogether. After this drive that Vrabel defense didn’t show up as much, and the Steelers stayed in 11 personnel for the majority of the game
Also, seriously, check the timing on this throw. Roethlisberger takes one step, plants and throws, and the ball is out well before Diontae Johnson makes his cut. the gif resets when Diontae turns his head, the ball is halfway to him. This is nearly impossible to defend.
Ben Roethlisberger is back
That touchdown pass to Diontae Johnson was a “Ben’s Back” moment. One of the moments you see Ben Roethlisberger make a play that reminds you of just how good he is when he’s healthy and on his game. There haven’t been as many of those moments in 2020, but they are happening more often as the season goes on.
2nd quarter, 15:00. James Washington is the Steeler to the right of the screen, behind and outside of Eric Ebron (wingback)
James Washington comes across the middle of the field, then backtracks directly into the middle, where Ben Roethlisberger finds him for 14 yards on 2nd and 16. He seems a little confused and out of the play before Roethlisberger turns and throws back to him, and you might wonder why he went there. Well. . . watch Ben Roethlisberger.
His quarterback gives a little arm motion to tell James Washington to go back, and Washington does it. Roethlisberger runs the defense away from Washington before throwing it back to him.
That’s vintage Ben Roethlisberger. That’s making stuff up on the fly, in the middle of a play. Changing a receiver’s route and then throwing a turning hop pass over the defense to make it work. This is Ben Roethlisberger finding his comfort zone. Ben wants that middle from the start, but James Conner is clotheslined trying to slip past the line and Ben finds another way.
2nd quarter, 7:27. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver on the line in the bunch to the right side of the screen.
This is a simple two layer attack on the defense to the left side of the screen. The Steelers run it with crossers instead of a deep out from Diontae Johnson (slot to the left side). Jaylen Samuels run a very nice 5 yard out, and his corner stays up on him, completely unaware that Smith-Schuster is going to attack the zone behind him. He never sees Smith-Schuster and Ben nails a pass between the defenders for a touchdown.
Roethlisberger steps up into the pocket to avoid the rush and makes this throw with bodies all around him. Smith-Schuster, for his part does a good job crossing the field fast enough, and then decelerating in the gap to give his quarterback that window. Smith Schuster and Roethlisberger have great chemistry o the field, they know and trust each other’s tendencies and it shows up in plays like this.
2nd quarter, 3:26. Eric Ebron is the receiver to the top of the screen.
The Bengals are in zone, the Steelers have three receivers to the field, 1 to the boundary. Eric Ebron has three defenders around him, while on the other side of the field the numbers and spacing are much more in the Steelers favor.
Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t care. The defenders know they have help, leave a bit of a gap and Ben Roethlisberger threads the needle for a strike right into the heart of the Bengals defense. You have to love these plays, these are Ben Roethlisberger plays. This is the quarterback we were hoping would find his way back to the field.
Don’t get me wrong, Ben has been playing great, but he hasn’t had a game where he strung together so many “Big Ben” plays in 2020. Now this could just be Roethlisberger dominating Ohio again, but I think we are seeing the Steelers franchise quarterback leave the preseason and early season form behind him, and start to really take over, not just with smart execution, not just with his experience, changing routes to exploit the defense he’s seeing, but with his movement, creativity and physical ability. Ben Roethlisberger is putting the whole package together, and it is awesome to see.
Finding Chase Claypool
The Steelers are scoring at a franchise record pace, and yet this offense hasn’t reached it’s limit yet. The Steelers passing game has a deadly weapon they are still getting used to.
3rd quarter, 5:58. Chase Claypool is the slot receiver to the bottom of the screen.
This is one of 4 deep passes to Chase Claypool that just missed against the Bengals, to go with a defensive pass interference penalty drawn on another deep pass. Since Claypool exploded for 4 touchdowns in week 5 teams have done a much better job of keeping an eye on him, and also have gotten more physical with him on his deep routes. Through the first 5 games Claypool had caught 4 of 10 deep targets for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns, since then he is 0-8 on deep balls, and his impact in the deep passing game has largely come from drawing pass interference penalties.
Claypool is still developing, and in the second half of the Bengals game Ren Roethlisberger made a point of throwing to the rookie, as they continue to work on their chemistry. If they find it, this offense will add a significant new threat to its already potent arsenal.
When the Steelers drafted Chase Claypool I did two film rooms on him, and concluded that despite his speed and size, he was a better short and intermediate route runner as he came out of college. He is showing that in the NFL, where he is still struggling some with defenders getting physical with him in his routes, but is also making plays like these.
3rd quarter, 4:26. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
Chase Claypool is a big target, and Roethlisberger trusts him to bring in a high throw into traffic, and Claypool does just that, for a touchdown.
4th quarter, 10:34. Chase Claypool is the receiver to the top of the screen.
Eric Ebron runs a post route, and Claypool runs a quick in route underneath it, splitting defenders to score his second touchdown of the game, and his 9th of the season. Chase Claypool is a good route runner, he has good hands and is a big play threat with the ball in his hands. He isn’t a great deep threat yet, but he’s getting better. Claypool and Ben Roethlisberger have 7 games left to work on that connection.
The Steelers offense may not be running the ball well, but does that even matter?
Ben Roethlisberger is playing some of the best football of his entire career, and the Steelers have one of the best and deepest groups of receivers in the NFL. The Steelers shouldn’t worry about establishing the run, make teams slow down the Steelers passing attack before you start worrying about the run game. They abused the Bengals for putting an extra defender in the box, and they need to do that every game until teams start dropping defenders back even more.
With Eric Ebron at tight end, and a receiving group of JuJu Smith-Schuster, Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, James Washington and even Ray-Ray McCloud, the Steelers receivers, along with their quarterback, are the strength of the team, and they are becoming increasingly harder to defend. The team should be focusing on maximizing that strength, and not spend time and effort doubling down on something that isn’t working.