On October 8, Ben Roethlisberger played what was probably the worst game of his 14-year NFL career. He threw a career-high five interceptions and no touchdowns, unless we count the two picks that were returned by the opposition for scores. He threw for 312 yards, sure, but on 55 attempts. The game resulted in his third-lowest adjusted-yards-per-attempt figure in his career. Roethlisberger has always been spectacular at Heinz Field, with a 74–24 home record. The 30–9 loss was the second-worst home loss of his career. It was one of just two games in which a quarterback threw five interceptions this season, although I’m gonna go ahead and say that Nathan Peterman managing five picks in 14 passing attempts was worse.
Normally, we’d forget about his dreadful afternoon. After all, it was a blip in an otherwise-excellent season for the 13–3, second-seeded Steelers. But we must remember it, because Roethlisberger’s opponent in that game will also be his opponent in Pittsburgh’s first postseason game: the defensively dominant Jacksonville Jaguars, who shrunk Big Ben down to a runt-sized Roethlisberger.
“You could definitely tell he’s a little older and he was getting a little tired,” defensive lineman Malik Jackson said of Roethlisberger in October. You can say whatever you want about a quarterback you just picked off five times.
At this point, surely you know how thoroughly the Jaguars defense balled out this season. The unit leads the NFL in defensive DVOA, opposing QB rating, passing yards allowed, and interception percentage. The leads in some of these categories are massive: No team allowed fewer than 3,000 passing yards this year besides the Jaguars, who allowed 2,718; the Jaguars allowed just 3.7 adjusted net yards per attempt, nearly a full yard fewer than any other squad; Jacksonville allowed scores on 23.1 percent of drives while no other team did better than 27 percent; no defense besides the Jaguars’ had an expected points contributed total of more than 100, while Jacksonville had 169.54, the highest figure any team has had since 2008. They were also second in yards allowed per play, points allowed, turnovers, and sacks.
The Jaguars defense has no weaknesses. It has two elite cornerbacks in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, an elite pass rusher in Calais Campbell, a Pro Bowl defensive tackle in Malik Jackson, another great pass rusher on the other side in Yannick Ngakoue, and a great linebacker in Telvin Smith.
Watch these men destroy Ben Roethlisberger:
There is no great individual move that causes any Roethlisberger pick. Each one is the product of multiple levels of mayhem. The first comes when a blitz from linebacker Paul Posluszny forces Roethlisberger to test Ramsey; the second comes when defensive tackle Abry Jones deflects the ball to linebacker Telvin Smith; the third comes when a pass rush by defensive end Dante Fowler prompts Roethlisberger to hurl the ball into triple coverage; the fourth when Roethlisberger tosses the ball to a fallen receiver in double coverage; the fifth comes after Roethlisberger is again under pressure from Fowler and, again, heaves the ball into multiple coverage. Pittsburgh could neither block Jacksonville at the line of scrimmage nor beat it downfield.
Roethlisberger’s October performance was an outlier. He threw 28 touchdowns and just nine interceptions in the other 14 games he played this season and performed well against great defenses. He torched a Ravens defense that ranked third in DVOA, throwing for 506 yards, two touchdowns, and no picks against the team that was tops in the NFL in turnovers and second in QB rating allowed. He had one of the best games this year against the second-ranked Vikings, throwing for 243 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions against the team that allowed the fewest points, fewest yards per play, and second-fewest yards per passing attempt this season.
So it’s tough to know what to expect from Roethlisberger when he faces the Jaguars for a second time Sunday. His credentials are excellent, but the Jags have the best defense in the NFL — one of the best in years, in fact.
We’ll know how this goes early. The flow of the first Steelers-Jaguars game dictated its ridiculous nature: Roethlisberger’s picks left Pittsburgh trailing, requiring him to throw more and more. His 55 passing attempts were the third most in any game by any quarterback this season, and his 19 targets of Antonio Brown were the most of any wide receiver all season. His passes were increasingly desperate and increasingly bad. Meanwhile, Le’Veon Bell had only 15 carries. Jacksonville barely had to throw with its significantly worse quarterback, Blake Bortles, who ended up with a mere 14 passing attempts while running back Leonard Fournette racked up 181 yards on the ground.
You can’t just run when you’re trailing. If Pittsburgh falls behind early, Roethlisberger will once again need to heave the ball against the best passing defense in the NFL. If Jacksonville trails, well, Blake Bortles will have to throw the ball, and that’s bad. Ben Roethlisberger will look a lot more like Ben Roethlisberger is supposed to look if Blake Bortles looks like Blake Bortles.