Although it ended in disappointment, the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers season was one to remember.
Thanks to an explosive offense that combined a highly efficient run game with awe inspiring downfield passing (not to mention the blessing of the football gods), the Steelers overcame a multitude of injuries to rally to a 10-6 record, sneaking back into the playoffs and winning a sloppy Wild Card game at Cincinnati. The injury bug caught up to the team, however, resulting in a close loss at Denver in the AFC Divisional to the Super Bowl champs.
The offseason has begun, and going into 2016, the Steelers should be at full health yet again, and as such should be a heavy preseason Super Bowl candidate. The team features arguably the #1 receiving duo in Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant, debatably the #1 runningback in the league in Le’Veon Bell, an excellent backup in DeAngelo Williams, a strong offensive line, and a rebuilding defense (that I expect to add more key pieces in free agency and the draft).
Now consider how much better the 2016 Steelers sound when I add in Ben Roethlisberger. 34 years old, the future Hall of Fame quarterback only played 12 games in 2015 due to a sprained MCL and bone bruise, but managed to lead Pittsburgh to the playoffs for the 2nd straight season.
To the average fan, Ben’s 2015 stats look pedestrian. He completed 319 of 469 passes (68.0 CMP%) for 3,938 yards, 21 TD, 16 INT, and a 94.5 passer rating. “How special is that?” Some people would ask.
However, look closely, and you’ll see reasons why people were so high on Big Ben. The 68.0 completion percentage is impressive when you consider the amount Roethlisberger threw 20+ yards downfield. For the 2nd consecutive season, he led the NFL in yards per game (328.2), his 8.4 yards per attempt were tied for 2nd highest for 2015, and he ranked #2 in ESPN’s QBR rankings. Even Pro Football Focus named him the #1 graded QB of 2015.
Would that be more than enough evidence to suggest Big Ben had a career year?
Normally, this would, but there would still be good reason to indicate it wasn’t. That’s where the film comes in.
It doesn’t take a genius to recognize Roethlisberger’s playing style right away. A pioneer of the millennial mobile quarterback, Ben’s been famous for being able to buy time in the pocket, extend the play (You can argue he plays better under pressure), and take the long ball. He’s also a smart QB, able to put the ball in perfect position for his receivers and anticipate openings before the routes are even halfway complete. And at 241 lb, Ben is built like a lineman, difficult to bring down.
2015 was more or less vintage Ben in that sense, and with an elevated receiving cast, he was able to rely on his receivers more than ever before. But make no mistake, this was a team that asked its QB to carry them full throttle, make smart throws, and stand tall in the pocket. For the most part, Ben did it (healthy of course).
In 2014, Ben played to a high level consistently, but 2015 seemed different. Through all the dumb turnovers and injuries (not coincidentally occurring at the same time), his highs were unprecedented. This was a guy that was seeing higher peaks in Todd Haley’s offense, with the ball placement being taken to another tier. There are throws on broken plays you’ll only see a few other QBs make.
I’ve watched every game Ben Roethlisberger played in 2015, and there were only 2 games where I felt he didn’t play well at all; week 8 vs. Cincinnati, and week 16 at Baltimore. Otherwise he was phenominal. Especially against the 49ers and Colts, Roethlisberger was able to anticipate openings and lead his receivers with precision, resulting in more yards after the catch and better field position.
Take for example this play on 2nd and 5 with 8:15 left in the first quarter of the Colts game. Big Ben notices tight end Jesse James (photo 1, red arrow) about to turn to Ben’s right on a slant route. Right as James turns the corner, Ben fires the dart far away from the defender, enough that not only can James catch it without being hit, but the pass also does not prevent James from stopping in his tracks, helping him gain yards after the catch on a 20-yard pass play. The Steelers ended up kicking a field goal here.
In week 10 vs. the Browns, Ben came off the bench due to a left foot sprain suffered at the end of a week 9 game against the Raiders. By doing so, he delivered a monster game, throwing for 379 yards and 3 touchdowns.
On this play (2nd and 8, 5:44 2Q), Ben felt pressure coming from rushers on both sides, and in vintage Ben-esque fashion, stepped up in the pocket and fired a dart to Heath Miller for 27 yards. The Steelers would end up scoring a touchdown on this drive.
Some plays did not need much accuracy, just arm strength, because of the ability of Antonio Brown and Martavis Bryant to create separation. Bryant’s ability at the catch point is not quite as polished as Antonio’s, but he has still done enough to establish himself as a solid #2 threat in 2015.
But many plays needed Ben’s anticipation to get the Steelers to the playoffs. Backup QBs Landry Jones and Michael did the best they could, but could not replace or come close to Ben’s intelligence and playmaking ability. Much of Ben’s turnover struggles came when he was not 100% healthy, and there were plenty of moments where that was the case (like the playoffs, where he was still able to lead a game winning drive in the wild card round at Cincinnati despite clearly suffering from a shoulder injury).
But perhaps above all, Roethlisberger’s deep passing was the story. In the 2015 Deep Ball Project, he graded out with an A, finished with a 60.2 accuracy percentage (3rd behind Carson Palmer and Sam Bradford), and threw 1,608 deep yards in 12 games (totaling out as 134 yards per game, highest in the NFL in 2015). While he was picked off 11 times downfield, as aforementioned, many of these came when he was rusty and not close to 100% health. He was otherwise near flawless in this area.
Needless to say, I cannot wait to see what a completely healthy Big Ben can do with this talented supporting cast behind him. In the prime of his career, Ben possesses stunning downfield accuracy, excellent mobility and playmaking, and great route anticipation. He is Pittsburgh’s most valuable and irreplaceable player, and will be the driving force behind the team’s hope to compete for another Super Bowl in 2016.