By: Noah Nichols
“I didn’t play well enough at the end of the season,” Roethlisberger said. “It’s no secret, and I’ll be the first to point the finger at myself. When the ball is in your hand every play, you have to make plays and play better football. I just felt like I had more in the tank and felt disappointed about the way the season ended. I wanted to let (the Steelers) know that if they wanted me back, I felt like I could give them everything I’ve got.”
Entering into the 2020 NFL season and coming off of major arm surgery, expectations for Ben Roethlisberger were not very high. Throughout most of 2020, Roethlisberger exceeded those expectations, but he did struggle towards the end of the season. Passing the football over 600 times might have had something to do with that, but the fledgling finish to the season raised some doubts about Ben. Can he still do it? Were the failings at the end of the year an indicator of someone who was throwing the ball too much, or of someone who just cannot throw the ball as well anymore?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. But Ben is not preparing like it.
“I’m going to approach this like I do every season like it’s my last,” Roethlisberger said. “Every single play in the game of football could be your last … every game could be your last. I’ve never looked toward the future. I’ve always looked toward the right here and now. I’m going to give it everything I have to win a Super Bowl this year because it’s the most important year for any of us.”
Ben is approaching the 2021 NFL season the right way. If everything goes well, where does that place him? Top 10 quarterback? And if it does not go well, bottom 25? The answer is more in between.
Ben Roethlisberger’s Ceiling
“Ben Roethlisberger says he expects more from his arm this year, a full extra year off of surgery. Said not having to rehab also affected his approach this winter: “I took a lot of time off from throwing this off-season. I really hope and pray it will pay dividends.” — Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) June 1, 2021
Ben struggled at the end of 2020. There is no way around that. But it does make sense that he might. He was coming off major elbow surgery in his throwing arm. And the offense required him to pass the ball over 600 times, which was the most in the league. The reason for that was twofold. One, the Steelers were the worst team in the NFL at running the ball. So instead of running the ball, the Steelers would rely on short, quick, passes and after the catch yards. Second, the now-without-a-job Randy Fichtner, the Steelers offensive coordinator in 2020, did not exactly help Ben by limiting his passes. Fichtner would keep calling those short passes, only continuing to wear down Ben’s freshly reconstructed elbow.
Enter Najee Harris and a completely remolded offensive line. Ben will not have to rely on those quick passes anymore. Najee Harris will tote the ball, and he will get the ball, a lot. 325 touches is not an unreasonable figure, and he could very well go over that number. So, with Roethlisberger no longer relying on his arm as a substitute for the run game, his arm will get more rest. And like I indicate earlier, he is already resting his arm.
Ben will have more passes with zip, and less throws that float in the air as a result of this. His arm strength is not something to be worried about, and that is not what he struggled with in 2021. He struggled with downfield accuracy. However, for someone who has to get used to basically a new elbow, that might be expected. And with a year to regain his familiarity with that elbow, to get used to throwing downfield again, it’s reasonable to expect that he might throw the ball better downfield in 2021.
The run game will help him with that, he will be able to use play-action effectively because defenses will be keying in on the run. His arm will be fresh and well-rested. Something that it was not entering into the 2020 season. So, what his ceiling? Taking into account his weapons, a new offensive coordinator, and a new running back, it’s pretty high. I expect Chase Claypool to take a second-year jump that Mike Tomlin expects from his players. Najee Harris is also a great pass-catching back, so he will receive more dump-off passes than his predecessors used to. The new offensive coordinator, Matt Canada has already said: “We’re gonna do what Ben wants to do and how Ben wants to do it,” Canada said Tuesday. “Our job is getting every player in position to make plays. There are changes with terminology. That’s an adjustment for Ben. He’s been great in learning it. Doing really well with it. He has adapted easily as we all knew we would.”
Canada is going to put Ben in a position to win. I think it’s reasonable to expect that Ben will pass for over 4,700 yards and 33 touchdowns. And his interception’s will probably come in around seven. Passing the ball less, but more effectively is going to be the name of the game for Ben in 2021. He won’t fall off at the end, either. No, he wont win MVP. But he will do more than enough for the Steelers. If I had to place him on a tier for 2021, I would say 10-12th best.
Ben Roethlisberger’s Floor
“Matchups are how you win football games,” Canada continued. “It starts with the quarterback. What does he do well? What does he like? What does he see? What is good to his eye in the passing game? Then we build off of that. That’s what we are gonna do. His voice. His vision. What he sees will be what we’ll do.”
Like I noted earlier, the offense in 2021 for Ben Roethlisberger is going to be tailored for him, and to fit his strengths and weaknesses. More runs, fewer short passes, and designed plays to keep Ben upright, but not passes that are predictable. Roethlisberger notes that he has already started practicing this new offense that Canada is implementing.
“We have gone under center,” Roethlisberger said during organized team activities on June 1. “We have shotgun. He has more motion. But I feel like that is where the NFL is going right now, a lot of the jet sweep motions and stuff. I can go under center. I never said I didn’t like it. We will be in the gun, we will move. We will throw a lot of different looks and schemes and things at people and see what works.”
So, how does this pertain to Roethlisberger’s floor? Well, if the offense is tailored to fit him, he can only be so bad. He is surrounded by talent around him at skill positions. Najee Harris can do anything and everything that Ben will need. Harris will be like Le’veon Bell for Roethlisberger, someone that he can rely on whenever things go south. That ensures that Ben won’t be throwing the ball into triple coverage, trying to make a play. And his offensive line has the talent and potential to make sure that he does not get killed in the backfield.
Roethlisberger won’t have to get the ball out at the fastest pace in the NFL either. Those basic things, a new offense tailored to him, and a new running back who he can rely on, will ensure that he always has some options, and won’t be trying to do too much.
As a result, his floor for 2021 comes in at 4,00 yards, and 25 touchdown passes. Maybe he throws more interceptions than usual, like 13 in this prediction. That would not be unreasonable to expect from him, he has thrown for more than that in a season not a few times.
In either scenario, Ben is at worst a top 20 quarterback, and at best, fringe top-10 quarterback. Now, maybe he could crack the top eight. If he does, than he would really be exceeding expectations. But that is not a reasonable ceiling. Still, Ben will be more than good enough for the Steelers in 2021. Perhaps even great.