Four Downs: Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger eschewing use of play-action fake
1. No action
With one of the NFL’s leading rushers at their disposal, one would imagine that the Pittsburgh Steelers utilize plenty of play-action fakes. Not so. According to Pro Football Focus, no quarterback in the league who has started at least two games has used the play action less often than Ben Roethlisberger at 10.5 percent. And he’s lowest by a long shot, too – the second-lowest usage of play action among quarterbacks who have started at least five games this season used it at a rate of almost 50 percent more often (Matthew Stafford, 15.3 percent).
For perspective, check out the (much-higher) percentages of play-action usage by some of these big-name quarterbacks: Jared Goff (37.4 percent), Patrick Mahomes (29.9 percent), Carson Wentz (29.2 percent), Cam Newton (28.2 percent), Tom Brady (27.1 percent) and Matt Ryan (26.6 percent).
Why are the Steelers eschewing the play action? Maybe because Roethlisberger is one of only six among the 34 qualifying quarterbacks whose yards per attempt is worse after a play-action fake than when there’s no fake. Roethlisberger’s passer rating also is better without the play action (97.1) than with (94.9).
2. Quite the protection
Then again, why bother with the fake if the passrushers aren’t getting to Big Ben anyway? By any measure, Steelers have an elite passblocking offensive line: only two teams have allowed fewer sacks (14), PFF rates them as the NFL’s best at pass blocking efficiency (90.6) and footballoutsiders.com ranks them second at adjusted sack rate (4.1 percent).
But how about what the Colts are doing and how their offensive line is protecting franchise quarterback Andrew Luck? The Colts have not allowed a sack in any of their past five games; if the line avoids a sack Sunday against the Dolphins, the Colts will become the fourth team since 1963 to have a six-game sackless streak in a season.
3. Not in much of a rush
Often when the passrushing production (or, sometimes, lack thereof) of Bud Dupree or T.J. Watt is broached, it’s quickly pointed out by Steelers personnel that Dupree and Watt are increasingly tasked with going out in pass coverage in lieu of rushing the quarterback. Most Steelers outside linebackers over the past 2 ½ decades (since the 3-4 “Blitzburgh” era began) had one task: to paraphrase Bill Cowher to Greg Lloyd in an iconic NFL Films moment, “Rush. The. Quarterback.”
Today’s Steelers outside linebackers, though, are covering running backs or tight ends a lot more often. According to Pro Football Focus, among the top 60 “edge rushers” in the NFL, Watt (23.4 percent of passing snaps played) and Bud Dupree (16.7 percent) are in coverage the fourth- and eighth-most.
The numbers incidentailly say that Dupree has been significantly better, be it measured by opponents’ passer rating (68.1 vs. 104.6), yards allowed per coverage snap (1.00 vs. 2.06) or snaps per opponent reception (11.8 vs. 5.6).
4. Working fast
Are the Steelers one of the most up-tempo teams in the NFL? In the first half, at least, yes – and it’s during the first half in which pace of play can be best measured. According to Football Outsiders, the Steelers during the first half of games this season run a play on average of every 26.30 seconds. That’s third-fastest in the NFL behind New England and Baltimore.
In the second half, interestingly, the Steelers are the sixth- slowest team in terms of seconds per snap. But second-half pace-of-play is dependent on game situation (i.e., it’s to the advantage of a team with a big lead to play it slow and a team that is trailing will move quickly).
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.