The Pittsburgh Steelers are 2-6 in their last eight games.
Now that’s not fair at all. Before Pittsburgh were 2-6 in their last eight games, they were 11-0 in the previous 11 games. Their defense was suffocated, their offensive was effective, and they were playoffs. Seventeen-year-old veterinarian Ben Roethlisberger was captain of the effective offense despite limits on his arm strength: His average goal depth of 7.6 was nothing magical, but he completed 67.5 percent of his passes and put an expected score of .212 pr. Relegation (12th in the league).
Pittsburgh still made the offseason, but stumbled across the finish line with losses to Washington, Cincinnati and Cleveland — and then Cleveland again in the wild-card round in an astonishing 48-37 loss. You remember: It was the game that started with a fumble-six and only got worse from there.
There were plenty of reasons for the long-running stumbling and thundering facial facility that was the Steelers season 2020, but there must always be a falling guy, and the Steelers sinned offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner. As a longtime employee and close to starting QB Ben Roethlisberger, Fichtner could not solve the many problems the Steelers offensive faces — a deteriorating offensive line, a rotating barn with replacement lanes — and over time, the passing game crumbled everything else. Roethlisberger’s goal depth dropped to 6.1; his completion rate to 61.9 percent; his EPA pr. games to negative-.098, fifth worst in the league. The dwindling arm strength and shift to offensive coordinator predicted a possible retirement for Roethlisberger, but he chose to return for another season, now under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
The book about Canada was that he could spice up the outdated transient attack left by his predecessor. Fichtner had worked with Roethlisberger as his quarterback coach since 2010, and much of his appeal when he took over the coordinator job in 2018 was continuity and chemistry with Roethlisberger’s understanding of the offense. The violation was scattered and static, allowing Roethlisberger to dictate at the border and choose any disagreements he preferred. Canada represented a strong turn in the opposite direction.
Canada’s background in the coordination of offenses comes from the college level. His progress began in Indiana, where he was the coordinator of the offense from 2007 to 2010. Thereafter, he was the offensive coordinator in Northern Illinois (2011), Wisconsin (2012), NC State (2013-15), Pittsburgh (2016), LSU ( 2017) and Maryland (2018). This transience has made Canada an interesting figure in football circles, but his offense does not fit perfectly in Pittsburgh. Canada will move people before the snap, he will put his quarterback under center, and he will run play-action. Historically, Roethlisberger will not do any of that. The challenge for Canada and Roethlisberger into the season was finding a happy balance.
What they have found does not exactly work yet. Roethlisbergers EPA pr. Game (.071) and completion percentage (62.5 percent) are both closer to last season’s stumbles than the increase at the start of the season, although the goal depth has jumped to 8.2.
On the surface, Canada presses all the right buttons, e.g. Before snap movement. Pre-snap motion is a laudatory feature of many prominent offenses, and increasing motion speeds are beneficial for limbo offenses, just like Buccaneer’s offense in 2020. If there’s a player who can move before snap, Canada finds that player, and trust me – he moves him.
Pre-snap motion is largely useful for NFL offenses, but individual players and play-callers may struggle with it. Even after the success, Tampa Bay had mobile players pre-snap, Offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich denied the idea that his group would continue to work on new pre-snap shiftsand said “the offense is based on the quarterback.” While there is still plenty of movement in the Bucs offense, movement is not a panacea; it is not a proposal without loss. Leftwich coaches below Bruce Arians, recalling that Colts QB Peyton Manning never liked players on the move in his time in Indianapolis. Peyton Manning would never have anyone on the move, so every quarterback is so different [with] what they want the proposal for. ”
Roethlisberger clearly falls into the camp for quarterbacks who are uncomfortable with pre-snap movement. In 2020, the Steelers moved a man of 42 percent of their snaps (20th in the league). Roethlisberger spoke during the season about the use of movement and play-action as something he was still trying to adapt to; Michael Lombardi af The athlete said Ben would never like play-action drops from the middle, another common feature of the Canada offense because they forced him to turn his back on the defense. Fichtner said something similar during the season when he said “We first assess what can be done from a play-action point of view from a protection perspective from Ben Roethlisberger. He will always be most comfortable in dropback passes. He can see in front of him. He can see his pages. He can be prepared for vision adjustments and hots and the like. “Years of data show that Pittsburgh does not use play action often and does not find much efficiency when it does.
The Steelers are at their own level when it comes to play-action use and success over the last five years.
– Ben Linsey (@PFF_Linsey) May 28, 2021
While Fichtner talks specifically about play action, pre-snap movement can have the same detrimental effects on a cerebral pre-snap fit. When you move an offensive player, the defense moves as well. It can give you some information about the defense’s plan for that snap, but it can also give the defense an opportunity to adjust and hide again.
Early returns show that Roethlisberger has been willing to develop in his 18th season as a pro. The Steelers have run a play-action fake on 25 percent of their dropbacks this season per game. PFF (up from 10 percent in 2020). The Steelers have also run several games from the center, but to a lesser extent — Roethlisberger has only five passing attempts from center this season, all of which came with play-action. That puts him at 25th in the league; he was 38th in such dropbacks in 2020. And somewhat oddly, on pre-snap movement, the Steelers have actually dropped from 42 percent of snaps in 2020 to 35 percent in 2021.
It’s still early in the Canada era, so we should stop before boldly proclaiming that this is the last and ideal iteration of Canada’s offense with Roethlisberger at the helm. There is more time to find an optimal rhythm in play-calling and play design. With these qualifications and excuses put aside, it is clear that play-action and pre-snap movement do not have and will not make Roethlisberger’s arm magically stronger.
Let’s take these increased play-action reps: Roethlisberger is currently averaging 6.7 yards per carry. Attempt play-action, which is the same as his straight dropback reps. But he pushes the ball down the field less on play-action, with an average goal depth of 6.1 as opposed to 8.9 on straight dropbacks. It is the ninth shortest goal depth on play-action in the league.
Remember, play-action fakes take time, and the time they take is what allows receivers to get down the field and for passers-by like Ryan Tannehill, Josh Allen and Tom Brady to attack those windows. But Roethlisberger’s limited arm strength prevents the Steelers from crafting these ideas.
Here’s a common downfield passing concept in the NFL: 989. It’s Air Coryell terminology: The 9 stand for the downfield go route, while the 8 stand for the mail route from the slot recipient. Do you remember the numbered grid you learned in peewee football? Same basic idea here.
This is a three-step fall from the gun-Roethlisberger’s favorite way of playing ball. He initially wants the burglary route in the middle of the field, but does not feel confident that he can lace the ball into the shrinking window, especially with safety lurking. So he looks to the outer sideline and reads up to a downfield throw-the correct reading as he has a one-on-one option-but then chooses to shell the ball to try to break the pocket. He’s fired.
The problem is not that there was no play-action fake attached. The problem is not that there was no movement in advance to move the defense around. The problem is that Roethlisberger had a one-on-one go-route, 25 yards downfield, on the outer sideline, and he knew he could not cope with the throw.
Now do not let it twist. Roethlisberger may have thrown with a clean slate into the pass and a giant Canadian waiting at the other end: Chase Claypool’s great catch radius has been the saving grace of Pittsburgh’s downfield shots for almost a calendar year now. He hit Claypool on a deep pattern against the Raiders that required a good deal of speed and distance. Arm strength is not a definite suggestion, just as you are better in the gym on some days than on others. Aside from the miracles of nature like Brady and football-throwing cyborgs like Allen, arm strength can vary based on platform, release mechanics, pressure, arm angle and just general wear and tear. Roethlisberger’s diminished arm strength limits the Steelers’ offense as a whole, though there are still flashy moments on individual plays.
Folding play-action and pre-snap motion into the mix simply does not solve this problem. Again, these concepts have been universally useful throughout the league, but there are some things that cannot be helped. Eating better helps you live a longer and healthier life – but it will not keep you alive forever. With a decline in the middle, movement by snap and a play-action forgery, Roethlisberger still does not have the speed needed to drive this ball into an extremely tight window.
This is not a throw that many quarterbacks make. Las Vegas cornerback Casey Hayward plays well, and even with a faster ball, poor placement makes this a much easier wicket. But you want your quarterback to be able to throw this wheel route in two different ways: with touch if it’s man’s coverage and with speed if it’s zone coverage. Roethlisberger has only one of these tools in his belt.
Canada can try to find easier wins with pre-snap movement and play action. The Steelers screen play is humming right now (10-to-10 for 72 yards) and probably deserves more attention. But it’s not like the Steelers do not know what terms to run for Roethlisberger — they have been running all the same fast-paced game ideas since last year, and we saw the declining returns of this offense as the defense settled into press coverage or flooded the short area of the field with zone defenders. The windows became smaller, the slopes and tugs were disputed, and the passing game fell into disgrace.
It is good that Roethlisberger and Canada are working to find a happy medium. I’m just not sold that the happy media will create a higher ceiling for the Steelers’ passing game. Nothing about the Steelers’ passing attack will scare defense, and no number of players they move before the snap or fakes they perform to run back will change that. In the NFL, you either have a quarterback and you are a competitive team, or you have it and you are not. We saw what the Steelers looked like down the stretch last season against competing teams. Why would we have any reason to expect anything different from them this season?
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