Is Ben Roethlisberger playing some of the best football of his career?

Is Ben Roethlisberger playing some of the best football of his career?
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You would think a 37-year-old quarterback coming off a major elbow injury and leading his team to 11 consecutive wins to start the season, without an effective running game, would warrant effusive praise. It hasn’t been universal praise — not by a long shot — even though the eye test suggests Ben Roethlisberger is playing the best football of his 17-year career.

Roethlisberger’s gunslinging ways are a thing of the past. The Steelers have been successful with the short and controlled passing game that has been responsible for the veteran QB rarely getting hit. This “throw short, run long” mentality allows the Steelers to use Roethlisberger’s greatest assets — his mind and his experience — to make quick decisions and keep their offense rolling. It also keeps the QB from stressing his surgically repaired elbow by keeping throws short.

The strategy has made Roethlisberger the engine of the offense. He has thrown more than 40 passes in seven of the Steelers’ 12 games, including two games in which he had more than 50 pass attempts. He’s even created plays in the huddle by going with an empty backfield and drawing routes on his hand for his receivers.

It’s far cry from what we’ve seen out of Roethlisberger during his last full season, where he was more than happy to throw it down the field to Antonio Brown every chance he got. This new-look Roethlisberger has been more than effective but has been a beacon of criticism coming from the analytics community pointing toward his air yards and his lack of splash plays being more of a true indication of how he’s playing over everything else.

So is Roethlisberger playing the best football of his career? Or is it a mirage?

— Mark Kaboly, Steelers reporter

The witnesses

Roethlisberger: “I know that people kind of beat the dead horse on run game alternatives and things like that. We will still take our shots down the field. We take some big shots down the field. You just have to be smart. You have to know when it’s right to take those shots when it’s right to take intermediate ones, and sometimes the ball needs to come out quickly on the little screens or RPOs. Whatever helps us win football games and get the ball in the hands of playmakers I think is smart football.”

Steelers offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner: “One of the things that we have been able to do is find ways to get solid players who can catch short and run long opportunities to get the ball. The ball doesn’t stay in Ben’s hands as long. He’s taking the approach that he’s throwing the balls to our colored jerseys. He’s taking pride in that. He hasn’t been risky, if you will, with the football. Situationally, he’s been phenomenal in the red (zone), a lot of great communication on and off the field with his guys that are out there. I could say this would be his best collection of a bunch of games, but he’s had a lot of great games. We’ve seen those over the past. I think he’s really zeroed in on the things that are going to help this football team have a chance to win every game or at least give us the chance in the fourth quarter to win the game.”

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Washington coach Ron Rivera: “He doesn’t look like he’s been hit that much so this Ben is probably tougher to defend. When he was holding the ball, at least you knew where he was and you had a chance to get to him. With him getting the ball out of his hands now, I mean, he’s pretty effective. He still has a great arm. He still has a good head on his shoulders and you are seeing the way they are playing as a team, he doesn’t need to do all that. All he needs to do is take what he is given and that’s what he is doing. He takes a good look at you and makes his decision based on what he is seeing and it’s been very effective.”

Jacksonville defensive coordinator Todd Wash: “You know, what he’s doing better than he’s ever done, is he’s getting the ball out fast. He’s one of the fastest ones in the league with his release time. You see a lot of the balls that he’s throwing, they’re actually called runs, but they’re not necessarily RPOs, they’re pick screens and stuff like that — or excuse me, rub screens. He’s just an exceptional quarterback and he’s playing as well as he did when we’ve played him the last couple of times in 2017 and 2018.”

— Kaboly

The film

Fichtner’s offense does a good job of protecting Roethlisberger from taking hits and he’s doing a good job of masking Roethlisberger’s diminished deep ball. His placement on “go” balls has been very inconsistent but he’ll throw a pretty one now and again. Roethlisberger is playing at a high level as far as doing what is asked of him in Fichtner’s style of offense.

On one play against Washington, the Steelers called a shallow cross concept. Tight end Vance McDonald ran the dig route while James Washington ran a skinny post behind him.

Roethlisberger saw the free safety stay on the opposite hash and sit on the dig route, so he made an aggressive decision to throw the post behind him. Roethlisberger anticipated it would get open and started his throwing motion well before Washington even reached his break point.

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He fired a bullet 35 yards downfield, right in between the cornerback and free safety.

Roethlisberger’s anticipation and ball placement in attacking the short and intermediate parts of the field have been superb. However, he’s asked to throw short screen passes too often. I’m not sure whether Fichtner is overly trying to protect Roethlisberger or their goal is to be as risk-averse as possible to complement their defense, which is one of the best in the league. This style of play doesn’t seem like a sustainable formula against elite competition.

— Ted Nguyen, NFL staff writer/film analyst

The numbers

The issues with Roethlisberger’s stats start at the philosophical level: What qualities do you value in a quarterback? What makes a quarterback good? And it’s simple enough to grasp: If you value downfield throws — attempting them and completing them — he hasn’t done much this season to impress you. That doesn’t discount 11-1. That doesn’t mean he’s having a bad season; it’s just an element of his game that keeps him out of the MVP race and short of the standard he’d set for himself.

Roethlisberger’s 3.1 completed air yards per pass attempt is 31st in the league among qualifying passers. Sam Darnold (3.0), doomed Jets quarterback, and Alex Smith (2.7), noted checkdown artist, are behind him. His completed air yards per completions is 4.7, which places him ahead of only Smith.

If you’d rather lean on average yards after completion — the ol’ point guard/“he’s getting the ball to his receivers in space” argument — Roethlisberger is at 4.9, in 19th place. Better, but still not great. “Throw short, run long” is closer to “throw really short, run a little bit.”

These aren’t be-all, end-all stats; the players in the thick of the MVP conversation, like Patrick Mahomes (10th in air yards on attempts, 12th in air yards on completions), Aaron Rodgers (17th, 19th) and Russell Wilson (8th, 9th) aren’t world-beaters there, either, but they’ve also got Roethlisberger beat in completion percentage, drops be damned.

Ironically, he’s also got the longest completion in the NFL this season at 84 yards, with an assist from Chase Claypool. But that’s an outlier. Maybe the win column and the gruesome Door 2 options we saw last season are enough to put him on your MVP ballot. Maybe you see a quarterback working within a specific framework, designed with issues (a brutal run game) and goals (keeping himself upright) in mind. But if the standard is Russell Wilson in 2020 or Ben Roethlisberger in 2018, his body of work this season from a stats standpoint falls well short.

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— Sean Gentille, Pittsburgh senior writer

The verdict

Kaboly: Different isn’t necessarily bad, and that’s where Roethlisberger is this year even if the analytics community doesn’t always see it that way. Roethlisberger might not be the “Ol’ Gunslinger” anymore, fighting off defenders to throw a deep ball to Brown in double coverage, but he is playing some of the best football of his career. It just looks different. If it wasn’t for 16 drops by his receivers the past two weeks, it would look even better. And often this season, it’s the things that don’t show up on the stat sheet that have separated him — audibling or even drawing up the right play; changing the blocking scheme; getting the ball out of his hands quickly to cover for a suspect offensive line; making the right read; and, possibly, his best attribute this year, patience.

Nguyen: When Roethlisberger was at his best, he was the driving force during two Super Bowl seasons, so it’s hard to say he’s playing the best football of his career when we haven’t seen him perform in the postseason. Also, the Steelers have played a weak schedule, and against tough opponents (the Ravens twice and the Browns), he hasn’t played that well. He did play a very good game against a tough Washington defense but his numbers were hurt by eight drops and the Steelers’ inability to run the ball. Overall, Roethlisberger’s new style has been effective but the passing offense only ranks 14th in passing DVOA, Football Outsiders’ efficiency metric. I like what he’s doing now and the playmaker “Big Ben” does flash on occasion, but I want to see Roethlisberger perform better against top-tier competition before declaring that he’s playing some of the best football of his career.

Gentille: Through 19:30 of the Steelers’ Oct. 25 game against the Titans, I was on board; Roethlisberger’s early season was culminating with what looked like a prime Tom Brady-level day. Then he threw a “why not?” pick in the end zone, and … something changed. Since then, his average line has been 30-for-45 for 275 yards and a 91 passer rating. The Steelers lost to Washington and could’ve done the same against Baltimore and Dallas. If you’re taking the more esoteric “he’s engineering wins” route, I understand. And if that route leads to something more, it’ll be tough to argue. But there’s still a lot of meat left on the bone. That’s the risk of banking your argument for individual performance on collective results.

Our decision: Plausible

Roethlisberger’s performance this season has been influenced by his environment, but the bottom line is the Steelers are winning games.

(Photo: Wesley Hitt / Getty Images)