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Death by a thousand paper cuts: How to defend Pittsburgh’s quick passing game

The Ravens must force Ben to hold the ball and beat them deep

Pittsburgh Steelers v Tennessee Titans Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

It feels like ages since the Baltimore Ravens faced Ben Roethlisberger. The last time the familiar foe played in Baltimore was for a Week 9 matchup, the final start of Joe Flacco’s tenure in Baltimore. The Steelers easily rolled through Baltimore, despite a one score game. Roethlisberger accounted for three touchdowns, finding Antonio Brown for the 68th touchdown in the duo’s career. Roethlisberger would only throw Brown six more touchdowns before Brown departed from Pittsburgh.

Lamar Jackson and Roethlisberger have never squared off before, and frankly, couldn’t be more different in terms of play style. Jackson holds the ball, pushes the ball downfield and makes plays with his legs. Roethlisberger? His 2.29 seconds from snap to release is the fastest average time to throw dating back to 2016, when Next Gen Stats started tracking the statistic.

The Steelers veteran passer doesn’t push the ball downfield like he once did. His 6.8 intended air yards per attempts are tied for the 6th fewest in the league among the 38 passers to throw 60 passes through Week 7. Roethlisberger relies on quick hitters such as screens, slants, drags and crossers, which get the ball out quickly and negate the potential for big hits that hurt a lot more than they used to.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Roethlisberger’s 30 screen passes thrown are tied with Tom Brady and Josh Allen for the most in football. Lamar Jackson? His 11 attempts rank 30th.

‘Big Ben’ also uses a high rate of slants, drags and flat routes to expedite his snap to throw time. Roethlisberger by attempts on such throws:

  • Slants- 21 attempts (8th)
  • Flats- 20 attempts (12th)
  • Drags- 24 attempts (2nd)
  • Screens- 30 (1st)

Combined, Roethlisberger has thrown 95 passes on such plays, trailing only Teddy Bridgewater (100). Those four routes account for 95/214 attempts for Big ‘Berger, or 44% of his pass attempts. Removing those four routes, the former Miami of Ohio first round pick has thrown only 118 passes on other routes, good for 26th in the NFL. Additionally, Roethlisberger has thrown 51 passes on zero or one step drop backs, the 11th highest amount in football. He’s gotten the ball out in under 2.5 seconds on 69.0% of drop backs, the highest figure in the NFL (per Pro Football Focus). On the other 31%? Ben has a measly 74 passer rating and 55% completion rate.

In summary, the guy fires the ball out quickly. This helps to neutralize the opposing pass rush, which has worked. According to Pro Football Focus, Roethlisberger has been pressured on only 21.7% of his drop backs, 37th of the 38 passers who have started multiple games. The Steelers have only utilized play action on 28 drop backs, last in the NFL.

The good news? The Ravens possess three of the best press man corners in the NFL, all who present different skillsets. Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith will need to have their best combined game of the year to neutralize the Steelers quick passing game. Playing “outside in” will also play to Baltimore’s advantage, as Roethlisberger’s heat map against the Titans shows his dependency on throwing the ball short and outside.

Roethlisberger spray chart @ TENN

The Titans only faced three attempts over 20 yards last Sunday. All three were incomplete, and two were intercepted. Roethlisberger has thrown 21 passes of 20 or more air yards in 2020, with 10 on target. Those stats exactly match Lamar Jackson to this point, who has also been inconsistent deep, although hasn’t turned the ball over on such plays.

The Steelers spread the ball out, with five players recording 20+ targets, but no player seeing 50 yet. This forces defenses to respect every player on the field, which is dangerous considering their quick passing attack.

Another tendency of Roethlisberger is to step up in the pocket, rarely moving outside. His mobility has diminished severely, and much like Drew Brees and Tom Brady, his only viable option to buy time is to step up when the defensive interior loses contain. It’s imperative that the Ravens don’t rush past Roethlisberger, do their best to clog passing lanes, and get their hands up to bat passes at the line. Calais Campbell’s three batted passes leads the NFL, and if there were a game for one of those to turn into an interception, it would be this Sunday.

The New England Patriots, a team that has given the Steelers trouble for years, often uses tight press man coverage alignments. While Jimmy Smith and Marlon Humphrey excel at jamming receivers, Marcus Peters typically thrives in a soft shoe technique, where he doesn’t jam, but uses controlled backpedaling to mirror receivers and break on the ball. It’s evident now that Peters is at his best when close to the line of scrimmage or in shallow zone coverage without deep zone responsibility. This could very well be a game where Peters’ calculated risk gambling mentality allows him to make a game changing play. He thrives when jumping short routes by using his quickness and length to break on the ball.

Additionally, Steelers second year standout Diontae Johnson has been a splash playmaker for Pittsburgh. However, he has had trouble holding onto the football after the catch. Marlon Humphrey will make him pay if he holds the football like an open beer. Johnson has fumbled six times in his 21 career games, while Humphrey has forced six fumbles in that same timeframe. Johnson and Humphrey figure to be matched up a few times in the slot throughout this game. I’m sure Mike Tomlin has spent significant time emphasizing ball security this week, as the Ravens currently lead the NFL in fumbles recovered (8) and adding another this week could be the tipping point towards a win.

The Ravens best strategy this Sunday is to press the Steelers receivers, forcing Ben to hold the ball and be accurate deep. Roethlisberger has been sharp pre-snap, clearly calling adjustments at the line to counter blitzes. The Ravens might be more well suited to simply press, blitz, and see Steelers can beat them deep. If the Steelers can convert first downs with their paper cut passing attack, it will be a long day. And the Steelers defense will be kept fresh to put pressure on Lamar Jackson every time the Ravens touch the ball.

It’s truly a strength on strength matchup, and will be fun to watch this Sunday.