The evolution of Ben Roethlisberger as a quick-strike passer

Ben Roethlisberger has the footwork of a finesse offensive tackle and the right arm power of the bear in "The Revenant." For years, those two qualities made Roethlisberger a natural at staying in the pocket for four, five, six seconds at a time while waiting for big downfield plays to develop.

As the hits mounted, the Pittsburgh Steelers turned to offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who has Roethlisberger racking up more yards and less poundage.

That doesn’t mean former coordinator Bruce Arians wasn’t good for Roethlisberger. He was. He’s a great playcaller. But Roethlisberger now looks more like a pure, drop-back passer than at any point in his career.

An unscientific, 20-throw sampling from the Week 15 win over the Denver Broncos shows three things:

* On short routes, the ball comes out fast.

* On intermediate to longer routes, the ball comes out in rhythm.

* There are minimal "Ben being Ben" scramble plays that were once his trademark.

“You never want Big Ben to lose creative ability -- that’s what makes him unique,” said ESPN Insider Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety for seven seasons. “But what’s made him better is staying through the pocket, finding the matchups he wants, and not having to put so much stress on his body.”

What stands out about Roethlisberger in 2015 was how quickly he released the ball. Of 20 throws against Denver -- tracking two first-quarter drives and most of the fourth quarter -- Roethlisberger released the ball in less than 2 seconds on nine of them (unofficial stop watch). Roethlisberger held the ball for longer than 3 seconds on five of those 20 attempts. Nearly everything was out of the shotgun with one true I-formation, seven-step drop in the sample of passing downs. Denver was a unique game because the Broncos stacked the box and forced Roethlisberger to throw a lot. But this game is a good example of Roethlisberger's skill set overall.

Yes, Roethlisberger has the perfect assortment of playmaking weapons for which to spread the ball. But he’s also refined his footwork and mechanics while throwing with conviction, knowing exactly where he wants to go with the ball.

“His footwork has improved, his eyes and vision have improved, and improved quickly,” Bowen said. “It’s also a confidence level that you can’t see on tape.”

Some things you can see on tape. Below is a four-frame snapshot of how Roethlisberger is currently operating the Steelers offense.

Throwing to a spot

Early in the fourth quarter, Roethlisberger faced a zone coverage while in the shotgun. Antonio Brown was out wide with Heath Miller and Markus Wheaton on the inside, to Brown’s left.

Once Brown got past a corner that wasn’t covering him downfield, Roethlisberger knew the sideline was wide open. Off a quick three-step drop, Roethlisberger opened his hips to the right side of the field and fired. The ball came out 2.1 seconds after the snap.

As you can see in the photo, Brown hadn’t fully turned his body to the sideline yet. Roethlisberger was trusting Brown would be there. And he was. Eleven-yard gain. First down.

Wasting no time

Roethlisberger’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Wheaton early in the fourth quarter was quick, quick, quick.

Wheaton and Brown were bunched wide. Before Wheaton turned his left shoulder toward the sideline, Roethlisberger had fired the ball -- about 1.2 seconds, basically a plant-and-throw deal. Once Wheaton caught the ball, which was on the money, he was one broken leg tackle from scoring. Brown was already about 8 yards downfield, getting ready to finish his move, but Roethlisberger found the matchup he liked and rolled with it.

Full-body power

This is a quarterback-only snapshot of Roethlisberger’s last touchdown pass in the 34-27 win, and a beauty -- a 23-yard strike to Brown, who was sandwiched between the cornerback and a safety playing too close to Martavis Bryant's side.

As Roethlisberger recalled during the season, he wanted Brown to lean into corner Chris Harris on this play, creating enough separation to flare toward the middle of the field. Roethlisberger must have noticed that leaning tactic early, because he released the ball in 2.5 seconds off a four-step drop -- almost like a classic three-step with an extra bounce forward with the back foot. This move helped Roethlisberger keep his rhythm and deliver the ball with torque.


What’s striking about the touchdown pass is Roethlisberger releases the ball as Brown is crossing the 15-yard line. He catches the ball right at the goal line. Roethlisberger gave the ball a little loft but this was mostly a straight-line throw. He needed Brown to create separation, cut to his left and track the ball, getting to where Roethlisberger wanted him.

Around draft time, you’ll hear analysts discussing whether quarterback prospects can make second or third reads from the pocket. Obviously Roethlisberger does that a lot. Sometimes, though, really good quarterbacks need only one read because they can put the ball where they know only their guy can win.

Sometimes, top-five quarterbacks can simply do what they want.

There were only a few plays in the Denver game where Roethlisberger had to twist and turn or pump fake from the pocket. Haley and Roethlisberger have the offense moving at a symphonic pace.