Roethlisberger forced to become pocket passer

SCI.net's Mark Kaboly sees a shift in how NFL teams are defensing Ben Roethlisberger. A transition is underway.

The answer was simple and to the point by Ben Roethlisberger. But how he said it told the entire story.

"That's fine, we'll take that. Just stay in the pocket and throw the ball," he said.

Every word that came out of the quarterback's mouth was dripping with frustration – frustration that doesn't need to be there.

Roethlisberger hasn't played anywhere near the level he did last year in the three games since returning for his suspension. Mind you, he's been more than serviceable, but nowhere near where he left off last year and even during the duration of training camp.

The frustration comes in when you talk about the opposition limiting what Roethlisberger has done best over his career – scrambling and making big plays off of it. It just hasn't been there and it may never come back.

Through three games, Roethlisberger scrambled 18 times, completed only 7 of 13 passes, was sacked 3 times, fumbled once, ran twice and, the most important stat of all, has been successful on just one big play when he ducked under Cameron Wake and moved up in the pocket and connected with Hines Ward 43 yards down the field against Miami.

Other than that, the scramble-and-throw has been virtually non-existent, and that hasn't been good for Roethlisberger and the already struggling Steelers passing offense.

Some of those struggles have to do with the erratic throwing of Roethlisberger coming off his suspension; some may be because of a sore shoulder he first developed in training camp that is still bothering him today; or it just may be that teams are doing a better job of containing Roethlisberger.

The latter is what happened last weekend against the Saints and frustrated the heck out of Roethlisberger.

New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had his pass rush contain Roethlisberger first, and employed a spy-like/delayed blitzer to bring him down when he tried to get out of the pocket.

It worked to perfection, so expect to see it a lot more down the road.

"Yeah, he is probably his best when he rolls out of the pocket and people know that and they are trying to keep him contained," receiver Mike Wallace said.

Against the Saints, Roethlisberger scrambled six times in which he was sacked twice, threw the game-clinching interceptions, and completed only 2 of 3 passes for 19 yards in the loss.

The one time he was able to find room outside the pocket for a possible big play, Roethlisberger badly underthrew Antwaan Randle El in the end zone.

You can't qualify how much pressure it puts on a defense to have to deal with a quarterback who can buy time and make big plays down the field because of the time he creates. And nobody has done it better than Roethlisberger over the years.

But teams are forcing him (at least through the first three games) to make quick reads and get rid of the ball quickly, which has been a brilliant plan, especially with Roethlisberger trying to get back into game shape.

When you talk about knocking off the rust, it is not with the physical ability of a player. The toughest aspect to get back is the mental part – red zone, two-minute stuff, third downs, hot reads – and that's where Roethlisberger has been limited so far.

In the past, he has been able to make up for that with his scrambling ability and the big plays that go along with it. Defensive coordinators are finally adjusting to that.

Even so, that doesn't necessarily mean the big play needs to or should to go away.

"You can still make big plays without him rolling out," Wallace said. "I feel that he is a great pocket passer, too. If they want him to stay in there, he can stay in there."

Roethlisberger did drop back a couple of times to Wallace for touchdowns against Cleveland and again against Miami, and that just might be the way the big play comes about from now on.

One way or another, the big play is very important in the Steelers' offense. They don't have the talent up front to routinely go on methodical drives without eventually having a negative play caused by a breakdown along the line that puts the offense in a precarious position that they can't overcome.

The big play is needed, but it looks like it'll have to come via the more conventional method from now on.


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