Ben Roethlisberger is returning to form, which is welcomed news for the Steelers and their hopes of getting back into AFC contention.
Roethlisberger, who was sporting a quarantine beard that rivaled only Ryan Fitzpatrick and vowed not to cut it or his hair until he could “throw a legit NFL pass,” recently made headlines after he gathered teammates for drills at a local high school miles away from Heinz Field. There, Ryan Switzer, JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner participated in a throwing session.
While Roethlisberger had been throwing for the past three months, this was the first time he tossed his version of an NFL-caliber pass. The results, albeit from his peers, were extremely positive.
“Man, he let it rip,” Switzer told The Athletic last week. “There was no restraint, no hesitancy, he was just out there. He has been throwing like that for a while and, in my opinion at least, getting out there on that field for the first time and throwing full-speed routes was refreshing. The control factor was taken out of it. He was out there and he was throwing. Did some off-schedule stuff. No restraints. He threw everything — across his body. Everything.”
Switzer’s 2019 campaign was also cut short due to injury; he was placed on the injured reserve in November and began practicing with the team in late December but was never activated. Smith-Schuster, one of Roethlisberger’s top targets since entering the league in 2017, saw a decline in play last season. While he missed a couple of games due to a knee injury and didn’t finish another after he bore the brunt of a helmet-to-helmet hit, Smith-Schuster totaled a career-low 552 yards and three touchdowns on 42 catches; for comparison, he finished his rookie season with 917 yards and seven touchdowns hauling in 16 more catches.
"Honestly, I think it's going to be a big year for us," Smith-Schuster said, in part, during an interview on Good Morning Football on Friday. “Our missing piece was Ben.”
Smith-Schuster went on to say: "You're getting a version that we all expect that he will be at. He's back. He's doing what he's doing. He's throwing NFL passes, there's nothing more to that. I'm excited.”
Roethlisberger’s 2019 season ended almost immediately. After a Week 2 shoulder injury, the Steelers tried their luck with Mason Rudolph and Delvin “Duck” Hodges; it went as well as one could have expected.
Pittsburgh was never in AFC contention but an 8-8 finish with QB2 and QB3 was commendable — and speaks to coach Mike Tomlin more than it does to the talent of either backup. We never saw what the Steelers could really do in Year 1 without running back Le'Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.
The good news for Roethlisberger and company is he has yet to truly hit a decline despite his age; Roethlisberger turned 38 in March. In his last full season, he led the NFL with 5,129 passing yards and threw a career-high 34 touchdowns. In back-to-back seasons (2017 and 2018), he tossed 97-yard competitions and again led the league in yards gained per game (320.6) in 2018. The number obviously reflects the explosive presence of Brown and a big reason for Smith-Schuster’s uncharacteristic decline. The Steelers can’t attack the field in the same way without Roethlisberger’s arm.
The contrast in deep passes was a big factor in Pittsburgh’s failed 2019 season. Roethlisberger was ranked fifth — behind Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, Texans’ Deshaun Watson, Jaguars’ Gardner Minshew and Cowboys’ Dak Prescott — on Pro Football Focus’ deep passing list; his comparable statistic taken from the 2018 season. In striking contrast, Hodges was ranked the second-worst deep-ball passer by USA Today’s Doug Farrar. On deep routes, as Farrer reported, Hodges completed 13 of 29 passes for 396 yards, two touchdowns and six interceptions. Those six picks on 29 attempts gave Hodges a league-high interception rate of 20.7%.
While Roethlisberger was antsy to get back to form, he was in no rush. His goal was to be at least 80% by the time OTAs and minicamp came around. With the presumed delay COVID-19 will have on the start of camp, he will be afforded more time.
Pittsburgh has now missed the playoffs for two consecutive seasons, which has happened only once in Tomlin’s tenure (2012-13) and three total times in the past two decades (with a two-year drought in 1990-91 and again from 1998-2000 all under Bill Cowher). The Ravens are the favorites for the AFC North title, and a healthy Roethlisberger would be hard-pressed to beat Lamar Jackson or Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. But Roethlisberger’s return gives the Steelers a fighting chance to break the playoff drought.
The Steelers entering the postseason near the top of their conference is a big improvement from shocking everyone with a .500 win season. The aging quarterback’s winning window is shrinking but paired with a formidable defense and healthy pass-catchers, the Steelers will be headed for the playoffs.