PITTSBURGH — Editor’s note: With Ravens-Steelers Week upon us, The Baltimore Sun offers a little insight from enemy territory with some bonus coverage from our colleagues at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Among the more curious oddities of what Ben Roethlisberger has been able to accomplish during the Steelers' unbeaten run is that he leads the NFL with seven touchdowns in which he has released the ball in under two seconds, bringing new meaning to the quick passing game.
But perhaps just as surprising is that he threw 49 times in Tennessee in a game in which the Steelers never trailed and even led by as much as 20, expanding the notion that a ball-control offense doesn’t necessarily mean having to run the ball.
“We don’t go into a game saying how many times we are going to throw it, trying to keep it under a certain number or get to a certain number of runs,” Roethlisberger said. “It kind of is dictated by the defense how the flow of the game is.”
In his 17-year career, Roethlisberger has attempted 49 or more passes in a game 14 times, including Sunday in the 27-24 victory against the Titans. Typically, a quarterback throwing that many times is an indication his team is trailing and trying to catch up. Not surprisingly, Roethlisberger is 5-9 in those games.
The only other time he threw that many times in a game when the Steelers never trailed was in 2011 against the New England Patriots, when he attempted 50 passes in a 25-17 victory. In 2014, he threw 49 times in 51-34 victory against the Indianapolis Colts, but only after trailing 3-0.
Roethlisberger’s career high for attempts in a game is 66, against the Ravens in a 39-38 victory in 2017, a game in which the Steelers led, 14-0, then fell behind, 20-17.
“We knew coming into the (Titans) game that we wanted to come out and throw the ball, possess it,” Roethlisberger said on Wednesday. “We had it in our top-10s (of scripted plays). We knew going into it what we wanted to do. It doesn’t matter how many points you’re up. You want to do what the defense gives you, the way things are dictated. The number of passes shouldn’t really matter.”
One week after he attempted 22 passes against the Cleveland — his fewest in nearly nine years in a game in which he wasn’t injured — Roethlisberger morphed into his 2018 form, when he attempted 50 or more passes three times that season.
But if that’s the way the Steelers think they need to possess the ball — which they do better than any team in the league — then so be it. The Steelers lead the NFL in average time of possession (33:55) and are second in third-down conversions (51.1%).
They converted 13 of 18 third-down chances (72%) against the Titans, their most in a game in 21 years. In their past three games, their time of possession is 35:08, more than 6 ½ minutes longer than their 2019 average (28:47).
“There are many ways you can possess the ball,” coach Mike Tomin said. “Short passes, high completion percentages allow you to do that along with running it. We want to have a diverse attack. We want to be well-balanced. We want to be thoughtfully nonrhythmic.”
And Roethlisberger has been that, getting away from some of the downfield throws that earned him his gunslinger reputation and going to more of a quick passing game with shorter attempts. The result: His 68.2 completion percentage would be the highest of his career, and his 13 touchdowns have him on track to throw 35, which would also be the most in his career.
However, the Steelers have completed just one pass longer than 40 yards — the 84 yard catch-and-run touchdown by Chase Claypool — which is tied for fewest in the league. And they have just 16 completions of 20 yards or longer, sixth fewest in the league. Compare that to 2018, when Roethlisberger had an AFC-high 61 completions of 20-plus yards.
Roethlisberger has taken the quick passing game to a new level. In addition to his league-high seven touchdown passes in less than two seconds, his time to throw this season (2.05 seconds) is the fastest among all quarterbacks in the past five years. Against the Titans, he averaged 2.02 seconds from snap to throw. He is getting the ball out of hand faster than a shortstop trying to turn a double play.
“I think that I’ve always tried to be good at it,” Roethlisberger said. "I think having big hands helps because you can’t always grab the laces. I think one of the most underrated things that people probably won’t talk about is, to be good at the quick game, you have to have a good snap.
“When [Maurkice] Pouncey snaps a spiral, you can catch it and you don’t need the laces, but you know you are going to catch a good snap. The ball can come out quick. I think that’s very underrated when it comes to the quick game.”
Roethlisberger might have to try more of that again on Sunday against the Ravens (5-1), a team that has sacked him more times (58) than any other team. Roethlisberger is 13-10 and has thrown 37 touchdowns against the Ravens, but his 85.0 passer rating against them is third-lowest among the 32 teams.
One of the problems Roethlisberger has encountered with shorter passes, which have a lower trajectory, is more throws have been tipped or deflected at the line of scrimmage. And that’s one of the things Ravens defensive end Calais Campbell does best, in addition to sacking the quarterback. He leads the team with five passes defensed.
“Sometimes when you’re throwing a lot of the underneath stuff and quick routes, the ball has to come out of your hands quick, and it’s going to, obviously, be a lower pass,” Roethlisberger said. “Coach Tomlin says all the time, ‘If you’re not going to get home, get your hands up.’ I think that’s what we are seeing a lot from defenders when they think they’re not going to get home or they think the ball is going to come out quick. They’re just getting their hands up. That’s creating some tipped balls, but we’re not too alarmed with it yet.”
Nothing is surprising with this Steelers passing game.
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