Ben Roethlisberger threw it back to the old school in his preseason debut against the Lions on Saturday night, eluding sacks and pump faking his way to a perfect performance against one of the worst teams in the league. But while his stat line (8-of-10 passing for 137 yards and two touchdowns) and deep throws were lauded by pundits both far from and near the Allegheny River, it was a subtle change to his positioning that caught my attention.
Last year, with his arm strength deteriorating seemingly every week and the Steelers unable to generate any rushing game, Roethlisberger played the vast majority of the game in the shotgun. That made sense because, with Ben's limited arm strength, the Steelers were forced to throw quick, short passes and Roethlisberger needed that extra second in the backfield to get the pass off.
Roethlisberger underwent surgery on his throwing elbow this past offseason and seemingly has some of his arm strength back, as was evident Saturday night on three throws that traveled over 35 yards in the air. That returned arm strength coupled with the Steelers' desire to run the ball more with rookie running back Najee Harris led to the Steelers putting Big Ben back under center 16% more in his first preseason game than he was last year.
While 16% might not seem big it is. Playing under center, when you can run or throw in several different ways, keeps the defense more off-balance than a largely shotgun offense, which typically features mostly passing.
The Steelers have a new offensive coordinator this year in Matt Canada. The former QB Coach clearly understands the importance for Roethlisberger to be under center more often, which is why this first preseason game was so important. He's gotta get used to it again after a season of being in the shotgun.
Beyond having Big Ben under center more often, you can also expect a lot more motion and misdirection from the Steelers this year. They did that in the early stages of 2020 before getting away from it later in the year. Whether that was related to Roethlisberger's injury or something else is uncertain. But the Steelers were a better team at the start of 2020 than they were at the end and this was one of the changes that led to their offensive regression.
Roethlisberger has a long way to go before anyone declares him Back, and his admitted underthrow on a 40-yard pass to Diontae Johnson was a reminder he may never get his full arm strength back. But playing under center should help confuse defenses and take some pressure off Roethlisberger's shoulders. At 39-years-old and following a long career where he's taken many big hits, that's what he needs to stay healthy. Clearly the Steelers know it too.