PITTSBURGH — The 2019 Steelers’ passing offense figures to be a far more balanced unit than the 2018 version, when All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown drew a large number of touches and significant attention from opposing defenses.
In 2019, Ben Roethlisberger is going to have to move the ball around a little bit more to offset that loss, but it’s something that he’s looking forward to.
“It’ll be fun,” Roethlisberger said on the first day of mandatory minicamp on Tuesday. “There’s some holes, some losses. It’s obvious, but we’ve got a lot of guys that desire to fill those voids. It’s not going to be one person, it’s going to be a lot of different people.”
One of those people will certainly be third-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is expecting a larger amount of attention and double teams from defenses in 2019. One of the ways the Steelers hope to combat that is by moving Smith-Schuster around.
“You’ve guys seen me play inside and outside, even playing tight end this year,” he said. “I’ll have the opportunity to go out wide. That’s what is great about our room. We’ve got guy that can play everywhere and not just one position. We’re not centering off one person, because we know everyone can make plays: tight ends, running backs, receivers.”
There’s plenty of other new wrinkles to the offense, too. The biggest addition might be free-agent signing Donte Moncrief. Roethlisberger has praised his work ethic and the speed at which he’s picked up the offense.
“I kind of know what to expect from some of the other guys, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect when he came in,” Roethlisberger said. “Obviously, we’ve played against him and I’ve seen him go against us in game situations, but I didn’t know him as a person. Now, just getting to see his work ethic, the type of person he is, his desire to be great, his knowledge of the offense already. … He’s in with Coach [Darryl] Drake every single morning, pretty much all day. You seen the desire and want-to-be-great, so I’ve enjoyed getting to know him and work with him so far.”
The last two times the Steelers went out and added an offensive playmaker from outside the organization, it happened late in training camp, or even after camp had broken. They acquired Ryan Switzer and Vance McDonald in August the last two years. This time, Moncrief was able to go with the offensive skill players to Ben’s lake house before OTAs and has been in lock step with his quarterback since day one.
“It really helps, because this is an opportunity, not just to be here, but in training camp,” Roethlisberger said. “I didn’t get to do that with Vance one year, we didn’t do that with Switz, whether its through trades or something the last week of camp or right before the last preseason. You have to try to learn someone really quick and learn about each other.
“This is an awesome opportunity that he’s here and we’re getting to work together. He was with us when we went on our trip. It’s been fun to get to know him as a person, too.”
There has also been an infusion of youthful talent into the Steelers’ passing game plans. Rookie receiver Diontae Johnson has drawn positive reviews and fourth-round tight end Zach Gentry continues to look like a potential red zone target.
The combination of new roles for returning players, new additions from outside the organization and young players joining the mix has put more on Roethlisberger’s plate this spring from a teaching perspective, and it’s one of the reasons he cited for participating in more of the team’s OTA’s than he has in the past.
“Some of these young guys coming in maybe don’t understand everything, so I try and tell them what I expect,” Roethlisberger said. “Coaches can coach a guy what the paper says on a route and do certain things, but ultimately it comes down to what does the quarterback want and expect, so I try to let those guys know so there’s no real secrets. Communication is always important.”
Ben Roethlisberger Says Form, Mechanics Can Be Better Despite Hot Start
To hear Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger tell it, he can better than what he’s shown on the field in his first two weeks since returning from elbow surgery.
He’s not happy with his footwork, he thinks he’s dropping his arm a bit and needs a more consistent release point.
The statistics, however tell another story. They say Roethlisberger has been operating at a higher level of precision than ever before. So which is it? Maybe both.
“I do feel I got a little lazy with my feet, which then, in turn, translated to a lazy arm,” Roethlisberger said. “There were some throws that I kind of dropped my elbow, if you will. I don’t want to get too technical, but it became more of a three-quarter release instead of an over the top when I didn’t need to. There are obviously times you have to change your release point. There were too many throws, I felt looking back, that I just have to get my feet working better, and that will then translate, hopefully, to the rest of the body. Then, I won’t be guiding some of the throws.”
Here’s an example from the game Roethlisberger’s form getting a little sloppy. He throws this ball flat-footed and almost all with his right side, getting less power behind it than usual and resulting in a pass that ends up behind JuJu Smith-Shuster instead of allowing him to build a head of steam toward the defenders at the line of scrimmage.
Is this a big deal here? Not really. Smith-Schuster probably couldn’t have done much better than he did at bulling over the defender, anyway. But this is also a route into the flat on the near side of the field. Over longer distances, that can make a big difference.
“I’ve gotten away with it in the past being able to not necessarily be perfect from the ground up and just letting my arm kind of make up for a lot of things, a lot of imperfections if you talk to quarterback people,” Roethlisberger said. “I feel great. I just need to get it in my mind that I can still make the throws when I’m not in the perfect position to make them.”
All of that can be true, and yet, it’s hard to argue with the results. Through two games, Roethlisberger has a 68.5 completion percentage. His career season high was 68% in 2015. In a game and a half last year, it was 56.5%.
His passer rating, even with an interception against the Broncos, is 107.1. His career season-long high came in 2o07, when he finished with a 104.1 mark. Last season before his injury, it was 66.
Some of that can be explained by a passing scheme that has take fewer deep shots down the field than it has in years past. His yards per pass attempt sits at 7.4, lower than all but four of his other 16 seasons.
Mechanical inconsistency can certainly have a greater impact on longer throws, so the Steelers’ somewhat more methodical offensive approach could be helping Roethlisberger get into the swing of things.
“Maybe some of that just comes from not playing a lot of football,” he posited. “I played two games this year. I played a game and a half last year, so really, it’s about three and a half games in two years if you think about it. It’ll come. Like I said, if I’m having these issues and we are still winning football games, that’s a plus.”
If a 2-0 record with career highs in passer rating and completion percentage is what he looks like with mechanical issues, the NFL should be very worried about what might happen if he gets into a groove.
Highlights from Steelers Practice 9/23/20
David DeCastro practices with the Steelers after missing the first two games of the season. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin explained to the media, including Mike Asti and Alan Saunders of Steelers Now, that he is evaluating DeCastro and he could start their week 3 game against Houston.
Joe Haden can also seen working on one-on-one coverage drills with the rest of the secondary.
Footage courtesy Pittsburgh Steelers
T.J. Watt Named AFC Defensive Player of the Week
Leading up to his big matchup vs. his brother J.J and the Houston Texans, T.J. Watt was honored for his performance last Sunday.
Watt was recognized Wednesday morning as the AFC Defensive Player of the Week for his effort against the Denver Broncos at Heinz Field. This was the third time in his career that Watt has won this award.
During the Steelers 26-21 win over the Broncos, Watt registered 2.5 sacks, four quarterback hits and four tackles.
Watt continues to be one of the most feared pass rushers in the NFL. Counting his performance on Sunday, Watt now has collected 37 career sacks, which is the most by any NFL linebacker since 2017. Here’s another interesting stat courtesy the Pittsburgh Steelers media relations department: Watt has 25 sacks in 25 career games at Heinz Field. Only three players in NFL history have registered more sacks over their first 25 career home games.
Watt and the rest of the Steelers defense will be challenged this Sunday as they host Deshaun Watson and the Houston Texans at Heinz Field. Their 2-0 start has the Steelers tied with the Baltimore Ravens for 1st place in the AFC North.