It was said that the Pittsburgh Steelers were looking to move on from offensive coordinator Bruce Arians for a while, but that his support from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the team’s success in reaching the Super Bowl during the 2010 season staved off ‘retirement’ for another year.
In spite of the fact that they finished 12-4 in 2011, however, the Steelers lost a tie-breaker for the division crown, and they proceeded to go one-and-done in the wildcard round of the playoffs against a Broncos team helmed by an obscure h-back by the name of Tim Tebow.
During that game, Arians’ offense got off to an abysmal start, mustering just two field goals through the first half. Though they would come back with 17 points in the second half, the Steelers went on to lose on the first play of overtime in heartbreaking fashion.
In part because of Arians’ vertical offense and Roethlisberger’s long leash with respect to improvisation, the quarterback often took a beating under Arians’ watch. His sack rates during that tenure were sky high, and it caused Roethlisberger to miss games and frequently play through injuries that ultimately hurt the team.
That was in large part to motivation for bringing in Todd Haley starting with the 2012 season. And we certainly have seen his sack numbers go down, but it’s worth pointing out that Roethlisberger suffered a significant rib injury in his first season under Haley.
Perhaps his failure to fully commit to Haley’s philosophy was a secondary contributor leading up to that injury that caused him to miss three games and underperform upon his return that year, but there has been demonstrative improvement since then, with Roethlisberger fully flourishing last season and taking just 33 sacks.
More significant is that he started all 16 games in each of the past two seasons, and missed only seven snaps during the regular season at the end of a blowout, though he did miss three snaps due to injury in the playoff loss.
This all raises a key question. Roethlisberger was heavily sacked before Arians, and certainly his own play contributes heavily to the amount of hits that he takes. The question is, then, which is the anomaly: his recent healthy play, or the freak injury in 2012?
Roethlisberger was sacked just a touch more than two times per game last year, his lowest ratio since 2005, but that also came on his highest number of dropbacks in his career. And just the season before, he was still sacked 42 times. Was the low number last season an aberration, with a regression to the mean anticipated for 2015?
Were I to venture my own speculation, I would suggest that there is no clear answer. While it is true that the offensive line’s pass protection has improved, and that Haley’s philosophy often leaves him more protection, Roethlisberger still does, and always will, take risks.
Haley has said that Roethlisberger has shown himself to be smarter and more selective in taking his opportunities, which very well may be true. But as we saw in the postseason, it only takes one attempt at heroics that results in a big hit to knock a player even his size off the field.