Ben Roethlisberger was very vocal about the play-calling of his offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, last week after the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ loss to the Dallas Cowboys. Roethlisberger has since apologized not only to Haley, but every other important figurehead of the Steelers’ franchise. The indirect protest didn’t come at the best time for the Steelers, as they prepare to face off against the Cincinnati Bengals in a game that will likely decide their playoff fate. However, in another sense it was the perfect time to highlight Haley’s offensive approach. There is nothing really wrong with Haley’s offensive ideals, he wants to prolong Roethlisberger’s career by protecting him with short passes and a commitment to the running game. However, that doesn’t get the best out of Roethlisberger, who can best be described as a free spirit under center and worst described as lacking structure. Not only does it not get the best out of the Steelers’ best player, it doesn’t fit well against the Bengals this weekend either.
The Bengals’ defense ranks 10th in points allowed per game this season, sixth in total yards allowed, 12th in pass yards allowed and ninth in rushing yards. It is a unit that hasn’t allowed a 300 yard passer since Week 2 when Brandon Weeden had 322 yards on 37 pass attempts. Since then, only Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers have gone over 270 yards through the air against the Bengals. Roethlisberger managed that total back in Week 7 during the two sides’ first meeting, but that was at a time when the Bengals’ secondary wasn’t at it’s very best. Over the past few weeks, since they held Eli Manning to just 215 yards, the Bengals’ secondary has been incredibly aggressive and productive. Combined with a group of fearsome pass rushers upfront, the Bengals have persistently thrown opposition passing attacks out of their rhythm.
In order to beat the Bengals’ secondary these days, you have to be similarly aggressive with quality playmakers on the outside. The team’s safety play has improved to no end since it was an obvious weakness just a few years back, while the revamped cornerback corps has had a fantastic season. Terence Newman, Leon Hall and Adam Jones are all very physically gifted, but also very physical. None fear playing press coverage against the better receivers in the NFL and each has excelled for the most part this year. There are multiple ways to take advantage of aggressive coverage, but running shallow route combinations is not one of them. Despite having a deep threat such as Mike Wallace on the outside, the very athletic Emmanuel Sanders inside and the elusive Antonio Brown on the other side of the field, the Steelers have specialized in a short passing game featuring bubble screens and quick passes to the flat since Haley took over. This gets the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands almost instantly and stresses the opposition’s ability to make tackles in the open field and fight for the football underneath.
The Bengals won’t miss many tackles on the outside against the Steelers’ receivers, while if their safeties are able to squash the field, their cornerbacks will begin to peak into the backfield and expand the potential for interceptions. Instead of taking the typical approach that Haley’s offense has all season long, the Steelers need to place the most critical result of their season in the hands of their most reliable and important player, Roethlisberger. By letting Roethlisberger play his natural game, when he extends plays and dodges pass rushers before finding big plays down the field, the Steelers would be impacting the Bengals in two phases. A very sack thirsty defensive line would become susceptible to draw plays and screens out of the backfield, while the Steelers’ receivers would be able to use double moves, post routes and deep route combinations to come free from the Bengals’ press coverage.
Roethlisberger will take a greater beating by using this approach. The sacks will be inevitable because the Bengals’ defensive line is fantastic. However, so will the big play opportunities. The Steelers’ receivers are incredibly talented, even during a season when they are each underperforming. Whether that underperforming is a result of Haley’s offense is unclear and to be honest, unlikely. The Steelers’ season is in critical condition, they pay their quarterback to come up big in these moments and he has never been reluctant to endure the hits of the opposition to keep firing. Keeping Roethlisberger healthy for the off-season is worth nothing.
It’s time for Haley to unleash the chains on his most vicious of beasts.