Years Of “Back Yard” Football Is Starting To Catch Up With Ben Roethlisberger

Ben Roethlisberger, Courtney Upshaw
Many crushing hits to Ben Roethlisberger like this one by Courtney Upshaw appears to be catching up with him. Photo from http://www.profootballtalk.nbcsports.com

There has never been a quarterback who could do things quite the way Ben Roethlisberger has does them since 2004. Sure many quarterbacks from Fran Tarkenton to Michael Vick could scramble, but not one of them has ever been able to extend plays and create something out of nothing like Big Ben. At 6’5″/ 241 lbs, Roethlisberger came into the league with combination of strength and agility rarely seen in a quarterback. From day one he has been muscling his way out of potential sacks, running around until one of his receivers breaks open, sucking the life out of defenses after they thought they had him stopped dead in his tracks. Now, after all these years, the beating he has taken from his improvisational heroics is showing signs of catching up with him.

Ben’s injuries through 2012

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Including his postseason appearances Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked 505 times during his career, and ranks 8th all-time for being sacked in regular season games with 456. While many of his sacks have come as a result of playing behind an inferior, patchwork offensive line, many have also come as a result of holding on to the ball far to long looking for the splash play. With a gunslinger like Ben, the sacks he has taken are the cost of doing business his way, and the price he has paid are all the injuries he continues to suffer, which are beginning to visibly take their toll on him. This past season, in Miami, Ben suffered his latest injury, a partially torn meniscus, on a play in which he used to regularly escape unscathed. All season long Big Ben looked a bit slower navigating traffic within the pocket, often forcing passes before the rush got to him.

As much as fans love watching Roethlisberger do what he does, his style of play is conducive to taking the type of punishment that breaks a body down, especially a bigger guy like him. Still, Ben’s size remains his saving grace, along with playing in Todd Haley’s offense, designed to preserve Ben’s health and extend his career. Unlike Bruce Arians’ offense, which was predicated on receivers running deeper routes, Haley’s system focuses on getting rid of the ball quicker, leaving Ben with less exposure to a pass rush. Over the same period of time, Ben’s improved on identifying his pre-snap reads and has evolved into one of the best pocket passers in the game.

If Ben were still playing under the guidance of Bruce Arians, or Ken Whisenhunt, he may have had to retire by now. During those 8 years, Ben averaged 3,197 yards, 20.6 touchdowns, and 12.5 interceptions per year. During that same time, he was sacked an average of 39.2 times per season. In the five years that Todd Haley has been the offensive coordinator, Ben has averaged 4,119 yards, 27.6 touchdowns, and 12 interceptions per year. His average sacks per season rate has dropped by 11, down to 28.4 sacks per season. As much distaste as some have for Todd Haley, he is as responsible for keeping Number 7 in the game as he is for Ben’s evolution as a quarterback.

While Ben still possesses the ability to get out of the pocket to make things happen, his age in that part of his game is starting to show, as all the injuries have slowed him down. Although he has been evaluating his future at the end of the last few seasons, Ben isn’t going anywhere…yet. He remains one of the most fierce competitors in the game, still possessing one of the strongest arms, and is driven to win another ring, but the reality is, that at 35, Ben needs to continue focusing on doing most of his damage inside the tackle box. With one of the best offensive lines in front of him, dangerous weapons all around him, and playing in an offense designed to keep him upright, it’s conceivable that Ben Roethlisberger could have another three good years left.

The Steelers need to capitalize on this three year window and take advantage of the time Ben has left. They are doing a good job of protecting him, but they have to ensure that he has a reliable number two receiver and a defense to back him up. The last thing Ben needs at this stage in his career is to feel like he has to go into Big Ben mode to carry the team like he used to. That’s not who he is anymore. What he is today, is a pocket passer with a rocket arm, who can step up in the pocket to avoid the rush. As far as being that guy who regularly runs around extending plays, well, he ain’t as good as he once was, but he’s still as good once, as he ever was. Thanks to Antonio Brown, LeVeon Bell, and the anticipated return of Martavis Bryant, Ben don’t have to be that guy anymore.

 

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