Adam Hunger/Associated Press
Ben Roethlisberger is back as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting quarterback, and he’s…well, not better than ever. But he’s good enough to make the Steelers a legitimate contender after last year’s disastrous results with Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges behind center.
The 38-year-old signal-caller doesn’t have to be the player he once was because the Steelers feature a well-rounded roster, though a few concerning areas still need to be addressed after Monday’s 26-16 victory over the New York Giants.
Roethlisberger will need help along the way, and the playmaking skills that made him a two-time Super Bowl champion are still present even if he looked a little rusty at points during Monday’s performance.
Two seasons ago, Roethlisberger led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards. He shouldn’t be expected to do the same this fall after surgery to his throwing elbow. Granted, Big Ben dealt with the issue for years, and he’s arguably healthier than ever after having the tendon issue fixed.
“I know I’m not getting any younger, but I feel younger because I don’t have any pain,” he said on the ESPN telecast.
Even so, there’s no reason to place undue pressure on the franchise quarterback as he works his way back into playing shape after nearly a year off.
The Steelers feature enough talent throughout the roster to make Roethlisberger a complementary piece, not the centerpiece. To be fair, the quarterback will still be the focal point of the offensive scheme, as is the case in every NFL offense. The difference lies in how he’s utilized.
Roethlisberger has always been a premium-grade gunslinger. He should be viewed differently now. He’s a distributor who will be best-served getting the ball out quickly and letting playmakers like JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson create after the catch.
Pittsburgh’s offense demolished the Giants defense by working the middle of the field with Roethlisberger feasting on in-breaking routes, per NFL Next Gen Stats:
Before, the Steelers were always going to take their shots downfield with Antonio Brown serving as the main recipient throughout Big Ben’s career. Smith-Schuster and Johnson are different players. Both are better working in a rhythm and most dangerous when allowed to work in open space.
Although, Pittsburgh now has a 6’4″, 238-pound rookie by the name of Chase Claypool, who Roethlisberger can exploit when he wants to drive the ball downfield or needs a bailout option.
Claypool caught two passes for 39 yards in his debut. His first NFL snag was remarkable and showed exactly what he adds to the offense:
Smith-Schuster and Johnson combined for 12 catches and 126 yards. The weapons are clearly in place for the Steelers passing game to be significantly better than last season’s pitiful 31st-ranked effort.
In total, Roethlisberger completed 21 of 32 passes for 229 yards and three scores.
With the proper triggerman leading the way, the aerial attack doesn’t need to be great. It just needs to be better than last year’s. Even if Roethlisberger can’t consistently supply the awe-inspiring throws after extending plays, as he has throughout his career, his experience and understanding of opposing defenses make Pittsburgh’s offense a million times better.
Two concerns shouldn’t be overlooked, though.
The offensive line is in shambles, and the Giants’ young and talented front pushed around the veteran group throughout most of the contest. To make matters worse, both right guard Stefen Wisniewski, who was already filling in for an injured David DeCastro, and right tackle Zach Banner left the game with injuries.
Wisniewski suffered a torn pectoral muscle, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette‘s Gerry Dulac. Banner, meanwhile, needed to be carted off the field due to an apparent knee injury.
The protection provided by the front five, as well as their capabilities at the point of attack, will make life easier or much harder on the aging quarterback. In an ideal world, the Steelers would still have a veteran-laden front five that’s considered one of the league’s best. But that’s no longer the case. The unit will likely operate with an entirely new right side for Pittsburgh’s Week 2 contest against the Denver Broncos.
Running back is an issue, too.
As mentioned, the Steelers’ offensive front struggled to get much of a push, though Benny Snell Jr. came in and provided a physical presence with 19 carries for 113 yards. His role expanded when an ankle injury sidelined James Conner, and he may have to become a workhorse moving forward because the last thing the Steelers want is Roethlisberger throwing the ball 35-40 times per contest.
Currently, Conner is expected back “in a timely manner,” according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. Either way, Snell earned more reps.
Defensively, the Steelers had a few hiccups and allowed a few more big plays than they would have liked. Even so, the group was clearly flying to the ball and creating havoc, especially outside linebacker Bud Dupree, who wrecked the Giants’ entire game plan and came up with the biggest play of the night when his pressure led to a Cameron Heyward interception that turned the entire game in the Steelers’ favor.
As a unit, Pittsburgh managed three quarterback sacks, eight more quarterback hits, 11 tackles for loss, five deflected passes and a pair of interceptions. Last season’s top-five defense slammed the door shut on Giants running back Saquon Barkley. The 2018 NFL Rookie of the Year managed six yards on 15 carries.
For comparison, Roethlisberger alone chugged his way to nine yards on three scrambles.
“We had a commitment,” Tomlin told reporters. “… We thought that guy was a catalyst for whatever they were going to do offensively.”
Frank Franklin II/Associated Press
To best summarize how much better the Steelers offense looked with its leader back, Roethlisberger’s three touchdown passes were more than Rudolph and Hodges combined to throw during Pittsburgh’s final four games of the 2019 campaign, as the Tribune-Review‘s Chris Adamski noted.
A veteran quarterback with some lingering big-play potential coupled with exciting weapons and a stingy defense once again places the Steelers back in the Super Bowl picture. The squad’s flaws can’t be overlooked, but Roethlisberger is the equalizer. All great quarterbacks are.
Make no mistake, the Steelers quarterback may not the same ol’ Big Ben, but that doesn’t matter because a healthy version can still lead Pittsburgh to victory against any and all opponents.