When the Bengals face the Steelers this Sunday afternoon, the offense that they will see will have experienced a sea change from the one that they became accustomed to. Ben Roethlisberger cut his teeth under the Bruce Arians system, but the Steelers forced him out this offseason.
Newly arrived offensive coordinator Todd Haley caused great consternation amongst Steelers fans. His brash personality was thought to clash with Roethlisberger, as would his offense that was worlds apart from the Arians attack in which Big Ben had grown comfortable.
Throughout camp and the preseason, the two have put together an offense that has shades of Haley’s successes: a NFC Championship coordinating the Kurt Warner-led Cardinals and a 2010 season in which he managed to get Matt Cassel to play at a Pro-Bowl level.
But they have also integrated downfield concepts that Roethlisberger prefers.
One thing the Bengals will expect to see is a healthy dose of play-action passes and pre-snap motion. The motion is to make the defense show what kind of coverage they are running, which is important to the playcall in this system.
Luckily for the Bengals, the Steelers will likely be without Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman, rendering the play action pass less effective. Jonathan Dwyer is built like Jerome Bettis but without the deceptive speed, and Baron Batch is an adequate but not threatening runner. Chris Rainey has the physical tools to be a home-run threat, but his adjustment to the pro game has caused him to see limited playing time.
The running game will still be the same downhill, power-blocking style that the Bengals will find familiar. In the passing game, expect to see more hot reads, crossing routes, screens and shorter routes. This has suited Roethlisberger well, as he sports a 99.9 passer rating and 10 TDs to only 2 INTs. With his 297.4 average yards per game, he is on pace for an incredible 4,758 yards this season.
But how is Roethlisberger quietly putting together the best season of his career? A few simple concepts go a long way.
The Play Action Pass Buys Ben Time and Opens up Holes in Coverage
On this play, typical of many plays, Roethlisberger sends a tight end in motion and determines that the defense is in zone coverage. He fakes a handoff and freezes the linebackers, determining exactly where he wants to go with the ball.
As soon as Heath Miller, running out of the in-line tight end position, gets over the linebacker but underneath the safety, Roethlisberger hits him for a solid gain. Miller has become a big part of this offense and is on track for a career season, as well.
This is another play action pass that stretches the defense in two directions in order to create room for a Mike Wallace reception. Before the snap, Antonio Brown goes into motion, making his defender shift inside and allowing him to get a clean, vertical release. This will allow him to get further downfield to stretch the safeties.
The fake handoff pulls the linebackers up and creates more space for Wallace. Brown’s skinny post pulls the safeties up, and Wallace runs a dig route to the open space. The dig route to open space off the play action is a concept the Steelers use repeatedly combined with vertical routes.
These routes will be difficult to defend with the Steelers’ sheer speed, but it is not unreasonable to expect the Bengals’ secondary to hold up well. It is nothing too complicated, and, again the Bengals will not have to worry as much about the running threat in the play-action pass game.