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Big Binary

Ben Roethlisberger has been good. Ben Roethlisberger has been bad. Whichever version shows up in the playoffs will determine how far the Steelers can go.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

The Steelers offense was supposed to be unstoppable this year. They finished last season third in offensive DVOA and tied for fourth in points, and with the return of Le’Veon Bell — who missed 10 games in 2015 and was suspended the first three games of this season — would take their game to the next level in 2016. Instead, they finished the season eighth in offensive DVOA and tied for 10th in points, and for most of the season, the scintillating ceiling for the Pittsburgh offense has mostly been theoretical. The Steelers feature one of the best receivers ever and one of the most versatile, explosive running backs alive. They’re also supposed to have of the best quarterbacks in the game — but a series of up-and-down games from Ben Roethlisberger has prevented the offense from becoming the scoring machine that its component parts suggest it should be.

A nagging knee injury suffered in Week 6 is partly to blame for his struggles, but Roethlisberger’s play has been more erratic than ever. One game he’ll be magnificent, and in the next he’ll be a major liability. Sometimes both sides show up in the same game: After three quarters of mostly shoddy play against the Ravens in Week 16, Roethlisberger caught fire and Pittsburgh scored 21 fourth-quarter points on Baltimore’s elite defense to complete a 10-point comeback win and secure a spot in the postseason. The win let Steelers fans exhale, but it also served up the same frustrating question that’s been hovering over the team all season long: Why can’t they do this every week?

When Roethlisberger is on, the Steelers are a Super Bowl contender. But if he’s not, they’re just another speed bump on the Patriots’ road through the AFC to Houston. Over the next month, Pittsburgh is going only as far as Roethlisberger can take it.

Roethlisberger was the hero of that win over Baltimore, but he was also 15 minutes away from being the goat. By the end of the third quarter, he had completed just 10 passes for 115 yards, and his sole touchdown pass was canceled out by two costly interceptions. Big Ben may be playing through lingering knee pain, but both of these throws were the product of bad reads and bad decisions from the veteran signal-caller.

By the time the Ravens made an early-fourth-quarter field goal, the Steelers offense had scored just three points total in its last seven drives, and Roethlisberger’s two third-quarter turnovers had led to 11 Baltimore points. Then something clicked: In the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger completed 14 of 17 passes (82.4 percent) for 164 yards and two touchdowns on 9.6 yards per attempt and a near-perfect 146.1 passer rating, leading the Steelers on three scoring drives, including the game-winning 10-play, 75-yard possession that ended in Antonio Brown catching a slant and stretching the ball over the goal line with nine seconds left.

That drive — and that whole quarter — put the AFC on notice: This is the Steelers offense you should’ve been fearing all along. But the first three quarters also told the rest of the conference that this offense doesn’t always show up.

That’s been the pattern all season. A sterling Week 1 performance (27-of-37 for 300 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception) in a win over the Redskins was followed by a pair of subpar games the next two weeks: a win over the Bengals and a loss to the Eagles in which Roethlisberger combined to complete 53 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and three picks for a 69.8 passer rating. Over the next two weeks, the Steeler signal-caller threw nine touchdowns and no picks while completing 76 percent of his passes for a 143.0 rating in blowout wins over the Chiefs and Jets, and then followed that up with two stinkers in losses to the Dolphins (19-of-34 for 189 yards, with one touchdown and two picks, with a 57.1 passer rating) and Ravens (23-of-45 for 264 yards, one touchdown and one pick for a 67.3 rating). This trend more or less continued: A good game against the Cowboys was followed by a bad one against the Browns, then two nice performances against the Colts and Giants preceded two bad games against the Bills and Bengals. The Week 16 game against the Ravens was shaping up to be another dud until he turned it around in the fourth quarter.

If you plot Roethlisberger’s season by Football Outsiders’ DYAR metric, it shows just how up and down his performances have been. Which Roethlisberger should we expect Sunday? The answer is a shrug emoji.

(Credit: <a href="https://twitter.com/Michael_Sawyer/status/817144580118179840">@Michael_Sawyer</a>)
(Credit: @Michael_Sawyer)

A plot of his QBR gets the same point across:

(Credit: <a href="https://mobile.twitter.com/guga31bb/status/817094154241142785">@guga31bb</a>)
(Credit: @guga31bb)

As far as Big Ben’s game-to-game inconsistency goes, the splits show that part of it was venue-related. Roethlisberger was much worse on the road (59.4 percent completion rate, nine touchdowns to eight picks, and a 78.4 passer rating as the Steelers went 5–3) than in the friendly confines of Heinz Field (70.8 completion rate, 20 touchdowns to just five picks, with a 116.7 rating and a 5–1 record), where Pittsburgh hosts visiting Miami on Sunday. But if the Steelers can get past the Dolphins, they’ll have to head to Kansas City and beat a very good defense on the road, and further down the road, would likely travel to New England for a chance at a Super Bowl berth.

Of course, Roethlisberger’s been a much more consistent passer for most of his career and the home/road splits haven’t been so pronounced. He’ll have the chance to buck the inconsistency that’s plagued him this year and make us forget all about how the Steelers got here with an offensive attack that was good, but not consistent enough to be great. Maybe that fourth-quarter explosion was a preview of what’s to come for the Pittsburgh passing game.

“This [playoffs are] about when you can get hot, when you can play your best football,” Roethlisberger said this week, “and it’s important to play your best football late in the season when it matters the most.”

Postseason success is also about being healthy, and right now, Pittsburgh has their three most important players at the ready: Roethlisberger’s healthy enough to play, and Bell and Brown will be right there with him. When Roethlisberger is on and accompanied by those other two, the Steelers are damn near unstoppable on offense. He works the pre-snap phase like a Jedi, identifying the weakness in a defense and casually checking into something that will lead to embarrassment for the defense. He throws with precision downfield, and he makes plays out of the constructs of the offense, escaping pressure and dragging 260-pound pass rushers around like he’s paired with a toddler in a three-legged race. Roethlisberger feeds his top playmakers a healthy diet of passes — Brown and Bell combined for 181 catches this year — but he also gets the team’s role-playing receivers and tight ends enough touches to keep the defense guessing. When Pittsburgh is rolling, they can attack all three levels of the field with impunity and score from anywhere — whether it’s with deep throws down the sideline, high-velocity darts over the middle of the field, or touch passes into the flats. That’s what the Steelers need from Roethlisberger this postseason. With that version of Big Ben, there’s really no ceiling to what Pittsburgh can do over the next month. With the other version, though, the ceiling isn’t much higher than this weekend.