Over the years, football fans have pretty much agreed on which top-tier veteran quarterbacks fall on which tier. The first tier generally includes, in no particular order, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. The second tier: Philip Rivers, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan. And then there are the talented but inconsistent gunslingers who float from one tier to another, guys like Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler.
The star quarterback people can’t seem to firmly slot is Ben Roethlisberger. Fans all agree he belongs on one of these tiers. In fact, he seems to fit on all three.
The truth is, Roethlisberger belongs on that first tier. He’s 2-1 in Super Bowls, has a career winning percentage of .669 as a starter and, most importantly, his on-field performance verifies his on-paper accomplishments.
Roethlisberger doesn’t quite look it, but upon close examination he’s one the most physically gifted quarterbacks in football—if not the most physically gifted. His ability to shed would-be sackers is one thing; his ability to do it multiple times and then gather himself enough to make not only a downfield throw, but a sharp and accurate downfield throw, is otherworldly. His unconventional playing style can make his golden arm easy to overlook.
While he’s always been great out of structure, Roethlisberger in recent years has also become very good within structure. The 32-year-old will never be a full-field progression read passer—he has too much natural inclination to improvise. But he’s no longer heavily dependent on his freestyling, thanks to improved awareness in the pre-snap phase.
Roethlisberger now operates in a Todd Haley scheme that emphasizes pre-snap decision making. Examples include Pittsburgh’s expanded shifts and motions, plus the quick receiver screens that have become a staple.
Roethlisberger’s relationship with Haley has been highly scrutinized, though both insist they’re on the same page now. Which is one reason we can expect the Steelers to rebound from a second consecutive eight-loss season. Some believe Roethlisberger actually had the best season of his career in 2013. If this club is to become a Super Bowl contender in 2014, he’ll need to be even better.
He doesn’t have as many weapons; Mike Wallace departed before last season and Emmanuel Sanders got away this past offseason. Antonio Brown is the only man left from what could have been an outstanding trio. A tight salary cap allowed GM Kevin Colbert to keep only one, and he recognized the right one early, giving Brown a six-year, $43 million extension before the 2012 season. Brown is one of the NFL’s quickest when it comes to getting in and out of breaks. He is dangerous after the catch and capable of stretching the field. Most importantly, he has a feel for what to do when plays break down.
That’s a vital trait for any receiver playing with Roethlisberger, though it’s not enough for a young player to stand on. If Markus Wheaton, last year’s third-round pick, is to fill the empty No. 2 receiver job, he’ll have to learn how to execute the intricate timing of Haley’s quick pass designs. Same goes for this year’s fourth-round pick, Martavis Bryant, who’s also competing for the job. If neither newbie is ready, then free agent veteran Lance Moore will start opposite Brown, giving the Steelers two superb deep-intermediate route runners.
Truth be told, it doesn’t matter a whole lot who starts at the other receiver spot because Roethlisberger is now capable of executing based off play design, and most of the play designs will center around Brown anyway. And Roethlisberger’s second favorite target will be smooth, reliable tight end Heath Miller, who turns 32 in October but is said to be back at top form now that he’s more than a year removed from ACL surgery.
The Steelers last season aligned in three-receiver sets 59% of the time, tied for seventh-most in the NFL. Presumably, Haley would like to change that and feature more balanced two-tight end formations. Matt Spaeth is back from a foot injury that wiped out almost all of his 2013 campaign. He’ll provide better blocking and red zone receiving than David Paulson.
Will Johnson can also be classified as a tight end, though really he’s more of an H-back, coming out of the backfield and serving as a de facto lead blocker. Johnson could see more than the 11.5 snaps per game he saw last year; the Steelers, based on how they drafted recently, seem eager to return to a more balanced, perhaps at times even run-oriented offense. After spending a 2012 first-rounder on drive-blocking guard David DeCastro, they spent a 2013 second-rounder on Le’Veon Bell, hoping he can be their “Bell cow.”
He can, but maybe not how you’d expect. Even though he weighs 230, Bell is more of a finesse runner who likes to reach the perimeter and create space with his agility. He’s certainly capable of providing power when need be, but he generally does that as a tackle-breaker, not a battering ram.
Bell will see about 25 touches a game but, this being 2014, they won’t all come off straight handoffs the way plodding-but-effective backup LeGarrette Blount’s touches might. Expect to see Bell split out to receiver in 3 x 2 empty sets and be a meaningful contributor in the passing game. Third-round rookie Dri Archer, a quick, multidimensional ball-handler, could also see an ancillary role here.
Just how often Bell’s touches come through the air versus on the ground might be a function of how Pittsburgh’s much-maligned offensive line performs. It’s a young group that, under new coach Mike Munchak, is expected to keep improving, especially now that Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey—one of the smartest, fleetest interior linemen in football—is back.
To Pouncey’s right, DeCastro has flashed Pro Bowl potential, but he’s also floundered at times, usually when asked to play off movement in the running game. If he were consistent on pull blocks, he’d likely wrestle the more significant left guard job away from Ramon Foster.
Outside, it’s imperative that solid fourth-year right tackle Marcus Gilbert stay on the field, as Mike Adams has proven to be exactly what the Steelers feared: someone you can’t count on. Adams still sees a lot of time as a sixth lineman, but he was supposed to compete for the long-term left tackle job. As of right now, that job belongs to 2012 seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum, who some believe is the team’s best raw athlete up front. Beachum progressed steadily as a fill-in starter last season, but he also benefitted from help-blockers on a fairly regular basis. That’s not ideal for any offense.
A big reason for Pittsburgh’s 8-8 slump has been a dearth of big plays on defense. In 2012, the Steelers ranked first in yards allowed but just 15th in sacks and 25th in forced turnovers. In 2013, they were tied for 25th in sacks and tied for 27th in turnovers. And thanks to uncharacteristically sloppy tackling, they surrendered a lot of big plays, falling to 13th in yards allowed.
This is the opposite of how Dick LeBeau’s bend-don’t-break zone blitz formula is supposed to work. LeBeau essentially coaches with the mindset that it’s okay to play with a cushion and be very basic on early downs. Yes, that might allow the offense to mount a few first downs, but it will take them at least 10 plays to do so. The law of averages says that, somewhere in that 10-play span, a mistake will be made, and when it is, the Steelers will capitalize. Inevitably, the offense will fall into a 3rd-and-long situation, which is where LeBeau unleashes his hybrid nickel looks and zone blitzes. The Steelers are very well coached in all of this, and they have to be: LeBeau’s scheme has a lot of complex matchup zone principles.
This is why rookies don’t generally play in Pittsburgh. That’s changing, though, mainly out of necessity. Jarvis Jones started eight games last year due in part to LaMarr Woodley’s injuries. Safety Shamarko Thomas was part of the dime package that saw increased usage because after Larry Foote’s season-ending injury, LeBeau was discouraged from playing his usual two-linebacker nickel package. LeBeau was uncomfortable with nickel because another rookie, sixth-rounder Vince Williams (starting in place of Foote), wasn’t very good in coverage.
Williams is in a reserve role now, but only to make room for yet another rookie: first-round pick Ryan Shazier. The versatile former Ohio State Buckeye will assume the weak inside backer job, sliding front seven leader Lawrence Timmons to the strong inside spot. This is by far the most athletic interior linebacking duo in the league. Their ability to rush the passer and run to coverage spots gives LeBeau tremendous flexibility in pass-rush disguises.
Shazier isn’t the only rookie likely to see time. Second-round pick Stephon Tuitt should capture Brett Keisel’s old defensive end role opposite 2013 breakout player Cameron Heyward. Also in the mix: former Charger Cam Thomas, who will compete with a heavier Steve McLendon (he’s up from 313 to around 330) for nose tackle reps.
Rounding out the front seven, the transition-tagged Jason Worilds is looking to build on the eight sacks he posted during the team’s 8-4 finish last year, and earn a long-term contract. Worilds can bend the edge, but it’s a little unsettling that his bulb did not light up until his 2013 contract year. He’ll play opposite the even more explosive Jones and ahead of free agent pickup Arthur Moats, who is competing with insipid fourth-year pro Chris Carter for top backup duties.
The secondary is the only area where this defense has not gotten younger, save for the addition of 27-year-old safety Mike Mitchell, whom Mike Tomlin and Colbert are betting (hoping) can replace stabilizer Ryan Clark in centerfield. Mitchell has never been particularly comfortable in deep coverage, though. His game is more that of an attack missile. But those chores are already handled by Troy Polamalu, who isn’t quite as dynamic as he was a few years ago but is still an elite playmaker.
Cornerback is the position that many felt needed an infusion of youth, if not for now then at least for next season, when stalwart veteran Ike Taylor will likely be gone. Taylor, 34, can still be a reliable No. 1 cover artist, but he needs more safety or buzz-linebacker help than he once did. Late last year he stopped shadowing opponents’ top receivers and just played the left side. That was in part to help settle cornerbacks Cortez Allen and William Gay. Allen is rising, but overall this is still a middle-tier cornerbacking unit. The Steelers hope it’s challenged more than ever, though. That would mean their top-tier quarterback is putting up points.
Shaun Suisham connected on all but two of his 32 field goal attempts last season, though none of those attempts came from 50 yards out, where he is 4-for-13 in his career. The Steelers’ punting situation has been a mess recently; veteran Adam Podlesh and undrafted second-year man Brad Wing will compete to clean it up. Antonio Brown is the rare No. 1 receiver who also serves as a returner. He can be very dangerous.
There are more question marks than usual here, but there are resources to answer them. Expect the AFC North to come down to Pittsburgh and Baltimore.