At the half of the Steelers’ Week 16 matehup against the Colts, things were as they’d been for a franchise that started the season 11-0, and then dropped three straight games. Coming into Week 16, the Steelers were guaranteed a playoff spot, but the AFC North was no sure thing, with the Browns breathing down their necks, and a Week 17 matchup between those two teams possibly deciding the division if things went south once again for Pittsburgh’s offense.
Again, at the half, that’s exactly what it looked like. Ben Roethlisberger had completed 11 of 20 passes for 98 yards, no touchdowns, and no interceptions, and once again, his spray chart had very little in the way of deep passes. That was an obvious negative trend during the losing streak, when Roethlisberger completed just four of 15 attempts of 20 or more air yards for 102 yards, two touchdowns, one interception, and a passer rating of 67.2. Whether it was the offense designed by Randy Fichtner and Matt Canada, or Roethlisberger’s own alleged inability to get the ball down the field, we were looking at the same old, same old… and the Steelers were looking at a 21-7 halftime deficit.
And then, in the second half, everything changed. Roethlisberger threw two deep touchdown passes — one to Diontae Johnson, and one to JuJu Smith-Schuster — and the Steelers managed to outscore the Colts 21-3 in the second half. That 28-24 win, combined with Cleveland’s 23-16 loss to the Jets, gave Mike Tomlin’s team its first division title since 2017. In that second half, Roethlisberger completed 23 of 29 passes for 244 yards, and three deep completions — two of which were touchdowns.
What happened to bring it all back? As Tomlin said after the game, it was about execution.
“We played better. We got open more. We made better throws. We protected better. It’s all a collective. We thought some chunk plays were there. We didn’t necessarily get them or capitalize on them [in the first half], but that wasn’t going to stop us. We weren’t going to be deterred. It was a critical component in terms of us getting back in the game. You’re not going to get back in the game three yards at a time when you’re down the way we were down, especially when you give up a field goal to start the second half.”
That all makes sense, but per Mike Silver of the NFL Network, something else was afoot — as center Maurkice Pouncey was tearing into his teammates in the locker room, Big Ben was exhorting his targets to have fun — and facilitating just that.
if you want to know why the Steelers offense looked better in the 2nd half, it’s because in the 1st half, pre-snap the Colts were calling out OC Randy Fichtner’s terrible, predictable plays…
so Ben called his own plays that were not part of Fichtner’s game plan in the 2nd half pic.twitter.com/QEEwGIC5Bb
— Warren Sharp (@SharpFootball) December 28, 2020
“As Pouncey was yelling, Big Ben was thinking,” Silver said. “Smith-Schuster told me, ‘Ben was great. The Colts’ defense was great early on. They were calling out plays they knew we were running. Ben’s mind is super-creative. He was calling plays in the second half that we did not practice — just pulling things from the past.”
So, “having fun” in this case was canning the short passing game over and over, and going with something more potentially explosive, There was certainly an element of predictability to that passing game before — only Matt Ryan had more dropbacks that resulted in slant or flat completions than Roethlisberger’s 97 going into Week 16, so it was evidently up to the quarterback to get out of the box as much as he was physically able.
Here’s how Bob Labriola put it on the Steelers’ official site:
One of the unfulfilled themes of the previous couple of weeks had been that the Steelers needed their stars to play like stars to pick up the slack created by the toll injuries had taken on the roster. They talked about it and talked about it, and then starting with the first offensive possession of the second half, Roethlisberger took the reins. It kind of happened in increments at the start – an 11-yard completion to Claypool, followed by a 34-yard shot down the field to Claypool – and even though that drive stalled with an incomplete pass on a fourth-and-goal from the Colts 2-yard line, Roethlisberger seemed to be feeling it.
The first strike came with 7:09 left in the third quarter, when Roethlisberger hit Chase Claypool on that 34-yard completion. Here, Claypool (who had been on a milk carton during the losing streak, catching just eight passes on 16 targets for 107 yards and no touchdowns in Weeks 13-15) ran cornerback T.J. Carrie up the field, maintained inside position, and Ben was able to make a great timing throw before safety Julian Blackmon converged from the deep third. Roethlisberger also did a nice job of looking Blackmon to the middle of the field before the throw.
Then, with 3:23 left in the third quarter, the 39-yard touchdown to Johnson. Cornerback Rock Ya-Sin did a pretty decent job of matching Johnson’s downfield speed considering that he had to recover from bail coverage and he almost fell down, but in the end, Johnson reversed his butter-hands narrative of late and laid out for a tremendous touchdown. A couple of neat nuances here — not only did Roethlisberger look off the safety again, but his pre-snap footwork indicated a quick back-side throw, and he reversed that after the snap to be in an ideal position for the deep pass.
Finally, the 25-yard touchdown pass to Smith-Schuster, who split safeties Tavon Wilson and Julian Blackmon on the play. He had help, though — Claypool motioned from the backfield to outside right, and his vertical route influenced Blackmon away from Smith-Schuster and his deep crosser from the right slot. And Johnson’s ability to run a convincing slant look to an inside cut on the other side forced Wilson to come down before he moved back up. So. there was a bit of play design involved here. Maybe we should give Fichtner and Canada some credit.
Maybe. Certainly a bang-on throw for a guy with no functional arm strength. Of the six deep passes Roethlisberger attempted, there were those three completions, and two deep attempts to Johnson that racked up pass interference calls adding 45 yards of functional offense. Not bad at all.
So, was this an open player revolt against restrictive play-calling like we saw from Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper against Scott Linehan in 2008, or from Bernie Kosar against Marty Schottenheimer in 1987? This, we don’t know. But if Fichtner and Canada want their offense back, they might want to follow their quarterback into the nether regions of the playbook.
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