Ben Roethlisberger's knee injury, which flared up a few weeks back, has become a source of greater concern within the Steelers organization, sources said, further limiting the quarterback's mobility at a time when Pittsburgh is throwing the ball at an alarming rate.
The Steelers have attempted 104 passes in the last two weeks. The results? They barely defeated the Covid-ravaged Ravens and then lost to Washington. Sources said the team did not intend to disband the run game to that degree and noted the wide autonomy that Roethlisberger commands to change plays at the line of scrimmage as a primary factor in the development. The timing of dropping back so much is odd, given the discomfort the 38-year-old quarterback has been experiencing in his knee, which has impacted him at practice and in games.
The team made a concerted effort to try to quell the trend this week, sources said, and is hopeful that the return of center Maurkice Pouncey and starting running back James Conner will bring more balance to the offense. But Roethlisberger's long and close relationship with offensive coordinator Randy Fitchner has been the cause of some worry within the franchise, with the quarterback granted significant latitude to alter calls at the line of scrimmage as he sees fit.
Pittsburgh has tended to go up-tempo with a spread formation for long stretches at a time – often an empty set – with Roethlisberger getting rid of the ball quickly in a short-and-intermediate pass offense. It has become somewhat predictable according to some teams who have faced them recently and while the aging quarterback is not getting hit much, it is leading to a more methodical approach that is bogging down in the red zone. Couple that with a tendency for Eric Ebron and Dionte Thompson to drop the ball and the margins can get slim.
Roethlisberger enters a Week 14 meeting with Buffalo having attempted 484 passes, most in the NFL, while he ranks just 29th in yards per attempt, with 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions. In the past four weeks, the Steelers have attempted a staggering 196 passes, 10 more than any other team, with Roethlisberger averaging under six yards per attempt. The Steelers are 23rd in the NFL in rushing attempts this season, and while they are averaging just 3.72 yards per carry there is a strong sense within the organization that a better semblance of balance is in order.
Especially with Roethlisberger ailing, and facing a Bills defense that has no shortage of talent, the coaches and front office are hoping that there will be fewer checks into pass plays this week and down the stretch as the Steelers aim for the top seed in the AFC, and what would be a much-coveted lone first-round bye for the injury-plagued club.