Ben Roethlisberger's arm more important than ever for Steelers
James Conner is out, and so is any semblance of a running game for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That sentence isn’t cemented in fact, but it is the perception of an offense preparing to play its first game this season without its starting running back.
Behind 15th-year veteran Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers already were throwing the ball at a historic rate this season. Why would that strategy change without their top runner against the 2-10 Oakland Raiders on Sunday at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum?
Offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner on Thursday insisted the Steelers, minus the NFL’s fifth-leading rusher, won’t abandon the ground game against the Raiders, whose run defense is tied for the worst in the NFL this season.
“We’re going to still address it as trying to be as balanced as we can, run when we can run,” Fichtner said. “It all comes down to efficiency.”
Despite Conner’s 909 yards rushing, the Steelers rank No. 27 in attempted runs and No. 29 in rushing yards. They have averaged 28.8 points per game — No. 4 in the league — based largely on Roethlisberger’s right arm.
Roethlisberger leads the NFL in passing attempts and yardage. But with the Steelers losing back-to-back games when Roethlisberger combined for 101 passes and barely winning one in Jacksonville when he put the ball in the air 47 times, the question is whether the Steelers are passing too much and running too little.
Conner had 15 carries, his highest total in four games, before he sprained his ankle late in the Steelers’ 33-30 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers. Roethlisberger had 45 passing attempts.
“I thought we were moving in that direction (of balance) the other night, but we got a couple of costly penalties that set us back,” Fichtner said. “We’re still going to force it and keep working on it. We’ve got capable runners.”
Rookie fifth-rounder Jaylen Samuels and veteran Stevan Ridley are expected to share the running back duties against the Raiders — and potentially beyond if Conner’s injury keeps him out multiple weeks.
“Nothing changes with Jaylen or Ridley in there, absolutely nothing at all for us,” guard Ramon Foster said. “We’re going to be a group of guys (on the offensive line that says), ‘Hey, this falls on our backs. We’re gonna get this done, and that’s that’ whether we’re running it 12 times or we are running it 22 times.
“The volume we get, maybe we get more yards, too. … If Ben wants to throw it, or if we are in a better situation where we have 500 yards passing, that’s fine, too. It’s all about getting a win.”
The pass-oriented approach has helped the Steelers craft a 7-4-1 record that still has them perched atop the AFC North. But they are 4-0 this year when Roethlisberger attempts fewer than 40 passes and 3-4-1 when he exceeds that number.
That Roethlisberger has attempted at least 40 passes eight times this season shows how pass-heavy the offense has become. In Roethlisberger’s first 14 seasons, he never had more than six games with 40-plus attempts in a season.
Roethlisberger has a career 20-34-1 record when throwing at least 40 times in a game. That doesn’t count an 0-6 postseason record. When throwing 50 or more passes, Roethlisberger is 3-8 (counting postseason), including a pair of losses this season.
In the final two years of offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s tenure, the Steelers passed on 59.3 percent (2016) and 57.4 percent (2017) of the plays. In Fichtner’s first season, that number has jumped to 66.5 percent.
“I think that is a continual discussion for us week-in and week-out in terms of how we want to choose to attack people in an effort to keep them off-balance,” coach Mike Tomlin said, “to ring up the scoreboard and make the movement of the ball a more fluid process. At the end of the day, we’re going to have to be able to run it. We’re going to have to be able to throw it.”
With 3,945 passing yards, Roethlisberger easily should reach 5,000 for the first time in his career. But all of his passing has come at a cost. He is second in the NFL with 13 interceptions, trailing only New York Jets rookie Sam Darnold, and Roethlisberger is in the bottom half of the league (No. 19) with a 95.1 passer rating.
That’s the risk-reward the Steelers have lived with this season.
“It’s hard sometimes,” Fichtner said. “You want to say, ‘Where did that come from?’ Other times, you’re like ‘Where did that come from?’ ”
Fichtner changed the inflection in his voice as he spoke.
“It’s just a matter of how you say it. That throw he made the other day, moving to the left, a 50-yard strike to AB, back of the end line between two people. Not many people are making those throws. The ones that are, you know their names. Rodgers. Brady. Brees. We’re talking about the best players in the game.
“And sometimes you are like, ‘Wow, come on, Ben, you can’t make that play every time,’ and sometimes it bites you.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.