Monday, August 29, 2005

Not Worried ... Yet

Watching the Steelers - Redskins game live was a lot like seeing a herd of buffalo go over a cliff. You can see it coming from a long ways off, you're pretty sure it'll be excruciating to watch, but there's not much you can do about it. But here's the thing. I watched the game again last night (because yes, I literally have no life) and after a second (and third, and fourth) look, things aren't quite as dire as they first seemed.

Yes, Ben Roethlisberger looked abysmal. And while I don't think the fact that all his teammates allegedly hate him had anything to do with his performance, if I'm Bill Cowher, I might look into whether the actual footballs have something against him, because they don't seem to be going where Roethlisberger's throwing them. Anyway, I took a look at all the offensive plays in the first half (which was all of 24 snaps and consumed a grand total of 10 minutes) and I noticed a few things.

First, the offensive line looked pretty good. In fact, they were easily the highlight of a pretty pedestrian bunch against the Redskins (and Willie Parker's 51-yard run wasn't bad either). They did a great job of pushing Washington's front four off the line of scrimmage and requiring the safeties and cornerbacks to make plays. If you look at the play-by-play you might get the impression that Washington ran roughshod over Pittsburgh's running game, but the stats are a little misleading. For example, the first series looked like this:
1-10-PIT41 B.Roethlisberger pass to H.Ward for 11 yards.
1-10-WAS48 J.Bettis up the middle to WAS 49 for -1 yards.
2-11-WAS49 J.Bettis left tackle to WAS 48 for 1 yard.
3-10-WAS48 B.Roethlisberger pass incomplete to A.Randle El.
On Bettis' first run, Simmons and Starks opened a big hole on the right side and the Bus was a step slow getting through it before it closed. On the next play, the offensive line did an adequate job of creating space up front, but Washington blitzed both their corners and Carlos Rogers tripped up the Bus in the backfield. The third down play leads me to my next point.

Teams are going to force the Steelers to beat them through the air. Given how well the offensive line is playing (and given the success of the running game last season), there's no way in hell opponents are going to give Duce, Jerome, Verron, Willie, or Random Guy Off the Street, a chance to keep Pittsburgh on the field while gaining five or six yards a clip. Ben's third down pass to Antwaan Randle El was roughly 85 feet over his head. Which means if Plaxico were still with the team, the pass would have been 75 feet over his head. The point is, no one -- at least no one not working for the circus or in possession of some super-strength pogo sticks -- would've come close to making that play. Thanks to my trusty TiVo, I looked at the play a couple of times and here's what caught my attention:

Randle El was sextuple-covered with three defenders in front of him. I don't think Roethlisberger's having trouble throwing the ball where he wants, per se. I think the problem is that on the balls that have been grossly overthrown, there have been defenders between him and the receiver and he's trying to force the pass. And instead of missing short of the target, he misses high -- and not just by a little, we're talking Sears Tower high here. It's certainly quite possible that just like some pitchers, when Roethlisberger puts a little extra mustard on his throws, he tends to miss up in the zone. So while everyone's questioning Roethlisberger, I think they're asking the wrong question. Instead of, "why are his mechanics so faulty," people should instead be asking, "Can he tighten up his decision making before the season opener against the Titans?"

On the next series, Roethlisberger again overthrew Randle El again and it was virtually for the same reason. As the ball sailed over Antwaan's head, there were a couple of defenders within two yards of him and anything short of a lightning strike would have resulted in an incompletion or worse on even a perfectly thrown ball. Again, I don't think Ben's mechanics are the problem. I think it probably has more to do with his decision making. (See above. Although, Roethlisberger did have a couple of nice completions -- one to Antwaan earlier in the second drive and one to Cedrick Wilson late in the first half.)

On the third series, Willie Parker's first touch resulted in a 51-yard gain right through the middle of the defense. It was similar to a play run earlier in the half with the Bus that only resulted in a short gain. (I guess running a 4.3-forty makes hitting the hole a little easier.) On the next play Roethlisberger underthrew Cedrick Wilson at the goal line. Now it might be easier to run through the lion exhibit at the zoo in a suit consisting of raw meat than it is to underthrow Wilson (I mean, the guy's four feet tall ... in lifts), but Ben did it. This time there was no underneath coverage but it was a timing pattern and Roethlisberger just made a crappy throw before Wilson came out of his break.

On the fourth series Wilson dropped a pass that hit him in the hands (and would've gone for a first down), and Lee Mays stood flat-footed on a comeback route that was easily broken up by the defensive back. And I don't even blame Mays here. The guy's been not coming back for passes forever, but Roethlisberger looks to get him the ball a lot more frequently than Mays probably deserves. Maybe someone should explain to Ben that Mays isn't the first (or second, or third) option on most patterns.

On the final drive on the half, Randle El was responsible for a dropped pass that would've also gained a first down. Every preseason we hear about how Randle El has the best hands on the team, and every preseason we watch Randle El botch a few passes. To be fair, he doesn't seem to suffer this affliction during the regular season, but that wasn't really a consolation while I was watching. And right on cue, the half ended with a Roethlisberger interception.

So yes, the offense was pretty woeful, Roethlisberger and his receivers weren't on the same page of the playbook, and there was a lot of sloppy play from both the QB and WRs. But if you're looking for a bright spot, you can take solace in the fact that Ben doesn't seem to have any problems throwing the ball when receivers aren't surrounded by defenders, and guys like Randle El and Wilson probably won't be dropping 50 percent of the passes thrown their way during the regular season. Of course this means that teams will probably play a whole lot of zone defense underneath the 10-15 yard routes and force Roethlisberger to make good decisions with the ball (or squeeze passes over the linebackers and in front of the safeties) in order to score points. This is exactly what the Jets and Pats did in the playoffs and things didn't work out so well. So even though things aren't as alarming as they first seemed when I watched the game live, there's also a lot of room for improvement. Hopefully that'll get worked out Thursday. Now if we could just sign Hines to a contract before the season starts ...