The race for home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs just got a whole lot tougher for the Steelers. Sunday’s 30–15 loss to Miami dropped Pittsburgh to 4–2 and also cost the team its franchise quarterback for at least one game. Ben Roethlisberger tore the meniscus in his left knee in the loss and underwent surgery on Monday. He’ll miss this week’s game against New England, and while the Steelers hit their bye week in Week 8, a return date hasn’t been announced.
We saw the Patriots make a near-seamless transition to Jimmy Garoppolo and then Jacoby Brissett when they were without Tom Brady for the first four games of the season, but don’t expect the same from Pittsburgh. The burly, improvisational Roethlisberger is one of the most unique talents in the NFL, and his backup, Landry Jones, is … just not very good.
With Roethlisberger under center, Pittsburgh’s winning strategy has been built around an explosive downfield passing game complemented by an efficient run game. But for this offense to have any success with its backup quarterback — and Jones is expected to start over Zach Mettenberger — offensive coordinator Todd Haley needs to ditch the Roethlisberger play sheet, lean heavily on the run, and put together a simplified passing game with throws that Jones can make consistently.
In 2016, Haley has called 242 passes to 138 runs, a 64–36 percent split. That reliance on the pass is about to change. According to NFL Research, in the four games without Roethlisberger last season (which they split, 2–2), the Steelers averaged 162.8 passing yards and 152.5 rushing yards a game. That’s a huge change from the 308.1 passing yards and 97.3 rushing yards a game they’ve averaged since the start of the 2015 campaign with Big Ben calling the shots.
Without its star quarterback to run the show, Pittsburgh is going to lean heavily on the ground game to limit what Jones has to do with his arm. Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams might be the top running back duo in the league, and the Steelers line is also among the NFL’s elite. Through six games this season, the Steelers runners have been effective, combining for 4.5 yards per carry (eighth in the league), but now they’ll have to shoulder a bigger load. Since the start of 2015, Pittsburgh lost a touchdown a game when Big Ben was out (27.5 points per game with him compared to 20.5 points per game without him), so the run-first strategy will limit turnovers through the air and control the clock to keep the ball out of the opposing offense’s hands.
The Steelers still have to pass the ball, though, and that’s where Haley can manage the impact of going from a perennial Pro Bowler to one of the league’s worst backups. In seven games last year (including two starts), Jones completed 58.2 percent of his passes for 513 yards, throwing three touchdowns and four interceptions. He had the benefit of another offseason to learn Pittsburgh’s offense, but he shouldn’t be expected to handle the burden of creativity and long-range passing that Roethlisberger carries in Pittsburgh’s scheme.
Still, the Steelers aren’t going to stop throwing the ball downfield — Haley is an aggressive play-caller and deep shots help to keep defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage to stop the run. We saw that in Jones’s limited action last season: In the five appearances in which he attempted a pass, his average depth of target was 10.4 yards downfield, per Pro Football Focus, which nearly matched Roethlisberger’s mark of 10.5 yards last year. Except the results were terrible: Jones’s 63.5 accuracy percentage (per PFF, which adjusts for drops and throwaways) was 70th out of all 76 quarterbacks to throw a pass in 2015.
Jones got into the most trouble with turnovers and off-target throws when he tried to force the ball into traffic over the middle. Haley will still want to push the ball downfield some — it helps to open up the run game by drawing safeties deeper into the secondary — but he should focus more on calling throws deep down the sideline.
Last year, Jones wasn’t shy about targeting Antonio Brown downfield, and the star receiver’s ability to adjust to poorly thrown balls with subtle push-offs meant they did connect for a few deep shots.
Martavis Bryant was also a frequent target on deep passes down the sideline, but with Bryant suspended, Sammie Coates has taken over as Pittsburgh’s primary speed threat. Coates is averaging 22.2 yards per reception and leads the NFL with six catches of 40-plus yards — four of which were simple go-routes up the sideline — and Jones connected with Coates on one of these balls in the Steelers third preseason game. It’s time to try to rekindle that connection.
Yet, while there are tweaks to be made in the deep-passing game, it’s hard to imagine Pittsburgh having much success if Jones is pushing the ball as far as he did last year. Instead, they would do well to put more of an emphasis on the short-passing game, in which Haley has some options to make Jones’s life easier.
Bell’s run volume may go up, but he’ll need to remain a big part of Pittsburgh’s air attack, as well. No linebacker in the NFL can run step for step with Bell when he runs a two-way option route out of the backfield, and that’s a play that Jones can lean on heavily to move the chains and keep the offense on the field.
Early Sunday against the Dolphins, Bell took this screen pass 6 yards for a first down. Getting the ball to the outside quickly can serve as a changeup to a heavy rushing attack up the middle.
When Bell’s on the field together with Williams, he can become an above-average slot receiver, and Jones can turn to him for easy, confidence-building throws. In Week 5 against the Jets, Williams lined up in the backfield and Bell shifted out to the slot, from which he ran a quick out route to gain 12 yards.
While Bell’s talents line up nicely with Jones’s limitations, the same can’t be said for Pittsburgh’s other superstar. Brown is an elite talent that can get open on just about every route he runs, but in order to make plays downfield, he still needs a quarterback who can throw the ball with anticipation and timing. Jones isn’t that guy, so the Steelers are going to have to manufacture touches for their star wideout — screens plays, quick slants against off coverage, or end arounds. The Steelers will also lean heavily on a specialty of theirs — a wide variety of pick plays — to create quick separation for Brown and help give Jones easy throws in rhythm.
Against the Raiders last year in Week 9, Brown ran a route from the outside in combination with Markus Wheaton, and Wheaton’s route created a natural screen for Brown’s defender. He took the quick slant and did his after-the-catch thing, picking up 57 yards.
Brown’s targets don’t all have to come within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, though. In the intermediate passing attack, one route that the shifty receiver can utilize while Roethlisberger is on the mend is the deep out. Brown is quick-footed, sells his fakes extremely well, and can turn on a dime. It’s a throw that requires some velocity, but Jones has enough arm to get it there on time. Against man-to-man or cover-3 coverage, it’s a simple read for Jones that he can step into and throw it with confidence. On both of these two plays from Week 7 last year, Brown sets up defenders inside before breaking outside toward the sideline, and Jones hits him on both.
Even with all of these potential tweaks, there’s no sugar coating things for the Steelers: They’re much worse off without Roethlisberger on the field.
Except if they don’t panic, can avoid turnovers, and just keep getting the ball into the hands of their elite playmakers, they have a chance in any game. Roethlisberger is coming back, and with him behind center, they could win a Super Bowl, so they just need Jones to keep their offense afloat while he’s out. With a game plan that simplifies the deep passing attack, avoids the middle of the field like the plague, and gives Jones easy wins with pick plays, screens, and dump-offs, Roethlisberger’s absence will still be a major setback; it just doesn’t have to be a death sentence.