It may not surprise you to learn that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had not gotten in a lot of work with running back Fitzgerald Toussaint prior to the previous week of practice, following which the second-year former undrafted free agent was asked to make his first career start, in a playoff game at that.
Having had just 81 yards of offense to his name combined between the Steelers this year and the Ravens last year, there was not much to go on in terms of trying to predict how Toussaint might fare in a starting role, even if frequently subbed out, but he answered those questions on the field with 118 yards of offense, slightly more than half of which came through the air.
And that was the most interesting thing to me about the development of the game, because I saw, in my interpretation, Roethlisberger gradually developing a level of comfort and trust in looking for Toussaint as an outlet in the passing game.
He may have finished his first career start with four receptions, but Roethlisberger looked his way frequently, targeting him on eight passes, only one of which could be placed in the category of a drop, and that would have been a bit of a tough grab.
It all began with a check down throw on a third-down play on the Steelers’ third drive late in the first quarter. After throwing a chip block, Toussaint bled out to the flat before stretching out to the vacated middle of the field. Under duress, Roethlisberger saw him flashing open over the middle and hit him in stride for a catch-and-run of 27, a nice way to endear yourself to your quarterback.
He didn’t see another target until eight minutes into the second quarter, but that pass, which had the potential for a nice gain, was batted at the line. But Roethlisberger came back to him late in the half to run the two-minute offense, starting out that scoring sequence with a 16-yard catch and run, doing a nice job of getting bounds at the end of it.
Roethlisberger tried to hit him again a few plays later after he had gotten a couple steps on Vontaze Burfict in coverage, which also had the potential for a nice chunk of yardage, but he couldn’t bring in the slightly leading pass. Fortunately, that did not deter Roethlisberger from looking his way again late in the game.
Toussaint did not see a target at all in the third quarter, and his one target from Landry Jones was also batted at the line—in fact, all three of his incomplete targets that were not dropped were induced by the defensive line.
It should be telling that with under two minutes left and the season on the line, Roethlisberger placed his trust in Toussaint—also knowing that his velocity was diminished—to come through, targeting him on three straight passes, the most impressive play coming on the first.
Facing third and two to begin the drive, the second-year back did a beautiful job of adjusting the Roethlisberger’s pass, which was thrown to the spot and not the player, having turned to the outside expecting the pass to be there. He came down with the over the shoulder grab and made it look easy for seven yards and a new set of downs.
The next play went immediately back to Toussaint, who was able to turn inside to get a step on the charging cornerback to pick up another 10 yards. Roethlisberger’s third straight target to the back landed in the turf, however, after getting his arm tangled with a lineman.
Still, it seems obvious to me that there is a necessary trust building with Roethlisberger and Toussaint, who was targeted five times inside of two minutes at the end of each half. The Steelers trusted him to be in the right place when they rewarded him with a promotion, and he returned the favor on Saturday.