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The only thing more painful than moving on from a franchise quarterback too quickly is holding on to one too long.
Three weeks into the season, it has become painfully clear that the Pittsburgh Steelers miscalculated in bringing back Ben Roethlisberger for one final ride. The future Hall of Famer is well and truly cooked. And now the Steelers, who are 1-2 after losing to the Bengals on Sunday, are staring down the prospect of finishing last in their division for the first time since 1988.
If you want to find a microcosm for all that is wrong with Roethlisberger and the Steelers offense, you needn’t look far. Take the fourth-and-10 call that ended any chance of a Steelers win on Sunday. Down 14 points, with the ball in the redzone, Pittsburgh had one final shot to get back into the game:
Swing pass by Ben on 4th and 10, down 24 points?pic.twitter.com/2JAQX86Uh2
— Dov Kleiman (@NFL_DovKleiman) September 26, 2021
On first viewing, it’s baffling. Funny, even. Did Ben Roethlisberger really just throw a swing pass behind the line of scrimmage on fourth-and-10? On the second, fourth and 10th viewing it becomes sad.
There was no separation down the field. Roethlisberger’s protection didn’t hold up. The 39-year-old’s inability to move outside the pocket or dance within it forced him to get the ball out to the first player he could find. That player, Najee Harris, the team’s most recent first-round pick, was swallowed up by five Cincinnati tacklers.
It is not particularly hard to figure out the issues with the Steelers: bottom-tier offensive coaching, bottom-tier quarterback play, and questionable roster construction.
Even their defense, flush with talent, was beaten up by a so-so Bengals side on Sunday. With TJ Watt and Alex Highsmith out through injury, Pittsburgh finished with zero sacks and zero quarterback hits; the team’s 5.6% pressure rate was the lowest rate the team have had since the league began tracking the stat. It was an ugly all-around performance.
But it’s the offense, and Roethlisberger, where the main issues lie.
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Roethlisberger is a dinosaur fighting extinction, a rhythmic, move-the-chains passer in a league that now demands an explosive, down-the-field passing game. The rumbling, tumbling, Big Ben of old has been missing for the better part of five years. Now, he’s a hit-the-back-foot, get-the-ball-out sort of player, void of the artistry that elevated him from a good player into a Hall of Famer.
The Steelers elevated Matt Canada from quarterbacks’ coach to offensive coordinator this offseason in a bid to give Roethlisberger a schematic fountain of youth. The whole conceit of the Canada offense is to use pre-snap disguises – motions and shifts – to confuse the defense. Confuse and clobber, they call it. It’s all about non-stop movement: you think the ball is here then – surprise – it’s over there.
The only real surprise so far is that the Steelers thought that such a system – one that struggled at the highest levels of the college game – would work on a field full of professionals, and that they believed such a gimmick-based approach could cover up for Roethlisberger’s dwindling effectiveness and a lack of talent along the team’s offensive line.
Against the Bengals, Roethlisberger completed 38 of 58 passes, throwing one touchdown to two interceptions. He averaged a triple-take worthy 5.5 yards per completion, with 32 of his 38 completions coming within 10 yards. That’s the kind of total that would usually see a quarterback sent to the bench.
32 of Ben Roethlisberger's 38 completions were within 10 yards.
The saddest part: if you tried to find the swing pass to Najee Harris on 4th and 10, you couldn't.
How much longer before the #Steelers realize that this can't work in the modern NFL? pic.twitter.com/bynvyrP9o5
— Bradley Locker (@Bradley_Locker) September 26, 2021
But the Steelers don’t have any other options. They chose to ride with Roethlisberger for one more season rather than jump into last offseason’s game of Quarterback Musical Chairs. They passed on opportunities to draft a successor. They didn’t get involved in conversations for Matthew Stafford. Even when the Jaguars made Gardner Minshew available for the paltry price of a sixth-round pick, the Steelers opted to sit out.
Standing pat can be the riskiest course. The point of hanging onto Roethlisberger was that while his physical gifts would continue to wane, his veteran savvy might guide the Steelers through games – his knowledge of coverages, his managing of the game. And that Canada’s new offense would leverage confusion into easy completions and yards.
It hasn’t worked. The offense has looked stilted, Roethlisberger a sad shadow of his former self – sapped of the ability to push the ball down the field, stumbling over his own feet, indecision seeping through the screen.
With no future to turn to, the Steelers face a long 14 weeks.
Quote of the week
“I love you, man!” – Rams defensive star Aaron Donald to Matthew Stafford.
You almost have to feel sorry for Jared Goff at this point. The Rams players, staff, fans, ticket attendants, hot dog vendors, security personnel, everyone is giddy at the sight of Matthew Stafford operating in Sean McVay’s offense. The Rams waxed a banged-up Bucs team 34-24 in what could be a preview of the NFC Championship Game. On both sides of the ball, the Rams looked quicker and slicker than the Bucs. And while Stafford was up-and-down early on, he hit enough chunk plays to make the difference.
Video of the week
It was a special teams bonanza on Sunday. To recap: Justin Tucker hit the longest field goal in the history of the league, doinking a 66-yarder off the crossbar to sink the Lions as time expired; an official muffed a punt return on behalf of the Cardinals, chucking his flag at the ball as it fell towards the return man; and Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins recovered his own kick against the Bills from a kickoff that was not an onside kick.
But the wildest play of them all came in Jacksonville. With two seconds left in the first half, Cardinals kicker Matt Prater was asked to attempt a record 68-yard field goal. The result: a beautiful disaster.
Prater missed. Jamal Agnes returned the kick for a 109-yard, kick-six return, tied for the longest touchdown in NFL history. Gus Johnson, working the game for Fox, self-immolated:
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) September 26, 2021
New rule: Johnson must work all Cardinals games moving forward.
MVP of the week
Justin Herbert, QB, Chargers. Sunday’s win over the Chiefs served as a breakthrough game for Herbert, his coach Brandon Staley, and the Chargers. Herbert threw for 281 yards and four touchdowns on the road, punishing the Chiefs for a slew of (now characteristic) sloppy errors.
LA’s offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi had Herbert crank up the tempo, discombobulating a Chiefs defense that couldn’t get lined up before the snap. While the Chiefs continued to stumble on offense, Herbert played a clean game, taking whatever was presented to him without forcing the issue. It was a mature performance from a quarterback who is quickly evolving from a fun player who makes ‘wow’ throws into a jump-on-my-cape winner … who makes ‘wow’ throws.
The Chargers’ win drops the Chiefs to 1-2 on the season, which makes the race for the AFC West all sorts of interesting.
ESPN also reported that Chiefs coach Andy Reid had been taken to hospital as a precautionary measure after feeling unwell. Let’s hope a fine coach – and one of the best people in the league – recovers well.
Stat of the week
The Bears averaged 1.1 yards per play against the Browns, the second-fewest by any team in a game this century.
It’s hard to imagine how Justin Fields’ first start as the Bears quarterback could have gone any worse. You can take your pick from any number of miserable stats from the Bears’ 26-6 loss to the Browns:
-- Fields was sacked nine times.
-- Fields completed just six passes.
-- Fields was pressured on 55% of his dropbacks.
-- The Bears finished the game with one(!) passing yard, the lowest total for any team since 2009.
-- The last time a Browns defense held a team to 47 yards of offense, they were playing the New York Yankees of the All-American Football Conference. The year was 1946.
Little of the blame should fall at Fields’ feet, though. His offensive line was wholly ill-equipped to deal with one of the league’s top pass-rush units. While his coach, Matt Nagy, continued to roll out the same uninspired drivel that he’s been inflicting on the franchise since the 2018 season.
Elsewhere around the league
-- The Bills thumped Washington 43-21 to move to 2-1 on the season. Josh Allen and the Bills offense have now posted 78 points and 10 touchdowns over the past two weeks against two of the league’s strongest defenses. After an inexplicable week one loss to the Steelers, the Bills now have the look of an honest-to-goodness juggernaut. Allen is playing at an MVP level. The defense is feisty. The division: a breeze. With the Chiefs’ shaky start to the season, the Bills should be favorites to clinch home-field advantage in the AFC throughout the playoffs.
-- Aaron Rodgers had 37 seconds left of the game to dig the Packers out of a 28-27 hole against the 49ers on Sunday Night Football. You’ve seen this one before: he led them down the field and Mason Crosby did the rest, converting a 54-yard field goal to give Green Bay a last-gasp victory. Rodgers threw two touchdowns and zero interceptions – that clunker he played in week one looks more and more like an anomaly than a trend.
-- It’s only week three, but it already feels like the AFC South is the Titans’ to lose. Tennessee beat Indianapolis 26-16 to put the Colts in an 0-3 hole. Add to that: the Titans face the Jets and Jaguars over the next two weeks. Given the dysfunction in Houston, the rebuild in Jacksonville and the mountain of injuries in Indianapolis, the Titans have as clear a path as anyone to a division title.
-- Kirk Cousins is playing as well as any quarterback in the league. Through three weeks, he has thrown for just shy of 1,000 yards, eight touchdowns, and zero interceptions. After two brutal losses, Cousins led the Vikings to a 30-17 victory over the Seahawks. Entering the season, it was fair to wonder about Cousins’ long-term status with this team. But so far, it’s been the Minnesota defense that has held the team back.
-- New season. New regime. New quarterback. Same Jets. It doesn’t get any tougher for a rookie quarterback than facing Bill Belichick and Vic Fangio in back-to-back weeks. Still: the Jets’ 26-0 loss to the Broncos was wince-inducing. Any preseason optimism has already drifted away.