Tim Benz: Like it or not, Big Ben needs balance
The Steelers play in prime time at home on Sunday night against a team with a good record. The Chargers are 8-3.
That's normally a winning formula. Ben Roethlisberger will probably throw for 300 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions like he did against the Carolina Panthers when they came rolling into Heinz Field with a 6-2 record and on a hot streak three weeks ago.
So, criticism of Roethlisberger or the passing game for some recent miscues isn't a prediction of future results.
In fact, the result I expect Sunday is something to the effect of 34-30 Steelers with Roethlisberger having a great night.
But, if that happens, it'll likely be complemented by a more consistent running game. Because when the Steelers run effectively, they score. And they win. When they become too pass reliant, they usually don't.
The Steelers have seven victories and a tie thus far in 2018. Five of those results featured 100-yard performances from James Conner. A sixth saw Conner exit early in that 52-21 blowout of the Panthers. At the time of his departure, Conner had 65 yards on just 13 attempts.
Roethlisberger has been held under 300 yards passing four times this year. The Steelers are 3-1 in those games. The two games in which Big Ben exceeded 400 passing yards resulted in losses against the Chiefs and Broncos.
It's not just about the yardage totals either. It's about attempts. Just look at the pass-run ratio.
For the sake of simplicity, let's count sacks as pass-play attempts and runs by Roethlisberger as rushing attempts — since runs-by-design go into the stat book the same way scrambles do.
This year, three of the Steelers' four highest point totals occurred in games when the ratio has been nearly even, or in favor of the run.
"We strive for balance," coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. "Balance being, we are capable of attacking in the ways that we choose."
I think Tomlin and his quarterback should choose passing a little less.
The only game in 2018 when the Steelers ran more frequently than they passed was the 52-point Carolina romp. The 41-17 victory over Atlanta saw an even 29-29 split. And the 33-18 defeat of the Browns featured a 37-31 pass-run ratio.
The outlier was when the Steelers scored 37 points against the Chiefs. They threw 61 times and ran just 13 in that game. But they lost, 42-37.
That's a theme. Not only does more passing usually fail to equal more points. It's also failing to equal victory.
Check the other losses this season. The Steelers put up 14 points in a loss to the Ravens when the pass-run total was 48-11. It was 60-16 in the loss to the Broncos when they only posted 17 points. Even the 20-16 win in Jacksonville saw the Steelers' third-lowest point total of the season. And that was another game where the offense skewed pass-heavy, 50-11.
Critics of these numbers will say winning via balance can be a false equivalence because of how the defense and special teams perform. They'll argue that, when a team falls behind, it needs to pass in hopes of closing a gap. Like the Steelers against Kansas City.
And they'll say big early leads because of the pass allows for the run game to flourish late.
But that blow out of Atlanta? Conner had 71 yards at halftime. The split was 17 throws and 14 runs. The Carolina beatdown? Again, 41 of Conner's 53 yards were before the half, and the split was 13-11 pass-to-run.
Defenders of the Steelers approach advance that the team is leading its division at 7-3-1 with the most lopsided pass-to-run ratio in the league.
My response is, maybe Roethlisberger and company would be 9-2 or 9-1-1 and leading the AFC if they stayed on the ground more often, particularly against Denver on Sunday.
We know at least 12 potential scoring drives ended via Roethlisberger interceptions. That's the second highest total in football. We know a lot of his passing yardage has been rendered moot by a league-leading four red-zone interceptions.
Yet, Roethlisberger obstinately defended his team's pass-heavy approach against the Broncos on his KDKA-FM radio show.
"We didn't abandon the run. We did what we wanted to do, and we were successful doing it," Roethlisberger insisted. "Look at over 500 yards of offense. You can't sit there and say, 'I wish we would have run it more.' We shouldn't have turned the ball over and we should've scored."
Well, Ben, sometimes too much passing results in more turnovers. Your five interceptions the past two weeks suggest that.
Before anyone gripes about Conner's fumbles versus the Broncos and Browns, remember Roethlisberger had two against Cleveland in the opener as well.
Also, there were seven "and goal" snaps by the Black and Gold in Denver. Six were passes. The only one that resulted in a touchdown came from kicker Chris Boswell on a trick play.
Roethlisberger also said on his radio show that we shouldn't "get caught up in the numbers and the stats" and that "you can throw records and rankings out the window."
I hope not. Because based on the past two games, if Roethlisberger were to throw out those records and rankings, they might get intercepted, too.
Roethlisberger will bounce back. Probably this week. But he needs to do so through efficiency, not volume. And he needs to accept some help from the run game.