Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger ready to spread the wealth against Patriots
The last team to defeat the New England Patriots used a backup running back gaining 172 scrimmage yards and a diverse passing game to eke out a 17-10 victory in December.
Is it a formula the Pittsburgh Steelers might use again when they open the season against the Patriots on Sunday night at Gillette Stadium?
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger isn’t sure a duplicate gameplan is the answer.
“You’re not going to get over on the Patriots twice,” Roethlisberger said Wednesday. “That coaching staff is pretty good, and their players are pretty good, too. We’ll have to figure some new things out.”
The recipe for success that enabled the Steelers to beat the Patriots for the first time in six tries worked so well New England essentially used an identical game plan to win their sixth Super Bowl championship.
With a renewed emphasis on the running game, the Patriots didn’t lose another game, reeling off five wins in a row and dispatching the Los Angeles Rams, 13-3, in the Super Bowl. In a league reliant on the passing game, it was an unexpected turn of events.
“Having the ability to change is huge,” Roethlisberger said. “Maybe not for a whole season, but for a game or a little run. When teams are expecting one thing and you can just completely flip the scrip and become dominant in another phase of the game, that speaks volumes to the coaching and playing and the players buying into it.”
Both offenses will have a different look heading into the opener with the retirement of Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and the trade by the Steelers that sent Antonio Brown to Oakland.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, though, has overcome extended injury absences by Gronkowski, winning the Super Bowl without his top target after the 2016 season. For Roethlisberger, this will be his first year without Brown, the most prolific NFL receiver in a six-year span, since 2009.
Minus Brown, the Steelers are committing to a more evenly distributed passing game, one in which Roethlisberger will take a page from Brady’s playbook and utilize all of his skill players. Brown had 168 targets last season — or nearly 25% of all passing attempts. Donte Moncrief, James Washington, Ryan Switzer, tight end Vance McDonald and running back James Conner each will be counted on to help fill that void.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who can be successful and help us win football games,” Roethlisberger said. “Kind of my style is spreading it around anyway.”
Not to the extent Brady did last season. Brown and Smith-Schuster accounted for 50% of all targets, with McDonald and Conner hovering around 10.5%, followed by Switzer (6.5%) and Washington (5.6%).
Brady’s top target last season wasn’t Gronkowski (12.9%) or even slot receiver and Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman (19.4%). It was running back James White at 22%. The most used outside receiver, Josh Gordon, was targeted on just 12% of Brady’s attempts.
“He’s thoughtful about how he’s going to attack you,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He’s going to hit you with known weapons. He’s going to hit you with lesser-known weapons. You better focus your energies on him and work out from there.”
Roethlisberger can look back to his ball distribution in the 17-10 win against the Patriots in December as an example of how to spread the wealth. Brown was targeted 10 times and Smith-Schuster seven, but Roethlisberger completed passes to eight receivers, and nobody had more than four receptions.
The Steelers also mixed in a heavy dose of Jaylen Samuels, who, while subbing for an injured James Conner, rushed for 142 yards and added 30 receiving.
“They didn’t really know what we were going to do not having our No. 1 running back in there,” Roethlisberger said. “They always do a good job of combo-ing your top two guys whether it’s a receiver, running back, tight end. Whoever they deem as your top two, they double, and that’s what we anticipate this year.
“The key is going to be early on figuring out who they deem as your top two and go from there.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .