Skip to main content

Pass protection is becoming a big problem for Big Ben

With three weeks in the books, there are some interesting trends starting to develop -- some good and some bad. How long can Ben Roethlisberger remain standing? What's happening in the goal-to-go situations? Is the number of rushing touchdowns making a statement about the NFL game in 2008? And finally, those two rookie quarterbacks are 4-1 and may be applying pressure to other situations.

Big Ben under fire!

It was shocking for Steelers fans to see their beloved quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, being physically beaten by the Eagles defense. Last year, Roethlisberger was sacked 47 times, or once every 9.6 pass attempts, which should have been a warning sign of what could happen in 2008 if a) the line didn't improve; b) the quarterback didn't make quicker decisions; and c) the running backs and receivers didn't lend a helping hand.

Well, things look worse right now. If you remember when David Carr was sacked 76 times on the expansion Houston Texans in 2002, then you'll recognize the situation: Pittsburgh has given up 14 sacks in three games, an average of 4.7 per game, which puts them on a pace to allow 75 sacks. What makes the Steelers' situation worse than the '02 Texans' is the number of other hits taken by Roethlisberger -- after he throws the ball or is tackled after scrambling past the line of scrimmage to avoid the sack. Carr practically took a knee on many of those sacks in '02 as the club tried to prevent injury to their young QB. Roethlisberger isn't about to take a sack because he is so tough, always looking to throw the ball down the field.

I would doubt he can keep up the pace of the physical beating he has been taking so far this season. In 79 pass plays, he has been sacked 13 times (a 1:6 ratio). He has been hit 18 more times and has been credited for six rushing attempts (when he avoided the sack by fighting his way back to the line of scrimmage). When you combine these hits with the sacks, Roethlisberger has taken a shot once every 2.3 pass plays. If Roethlisberger attempts the same number of passes as he did last year, he will be involved in a hit, sack or tackle 196 times.

Capitalize on goal-to-go

It's hard enough to score touchdowns in the NFL, so when a team gets into a goal-to-go situation they absolutely must reach the end zone. So often, field goals just aren't good enough. In Week 2, the Jets were criticized for calling three straight run plays inside the 4-yard line and settling for a field goal. Here's a look at the teams that do the best at capitalizing in the red zone.

The Denver Broncos have been in goal-to-go situations 11 times in three games, produced nine touchdowns and one field goal. Last year, the Broncos only scored 15 goal-to-go touchdowns all year. For even more perspective: The Broncos have been in goal-to-go situations this season as many times as the Redskins, Rams, Bengals, Lions, Vikings, Browns and Steelers combined -- and have scored as many touchdowns.

Second to the Broncos in scoring touchdowns close to the end zone are the Philadelphia Eagles, with seven touchdowns in nine trips. Last year, Philly only hit paydirt 15 times in goal-to-go drives, so they are way ahead of schedule as well.

Rushing TDs in vogue

The NFL is a pass-to-set-up-the-run league. When it comes to scoring touchdowns, the passing game has dominated the rushing game for years. In the past five seasons, the league averaged 417 rushing touchdowns to 680 passing touchdowns a season. Last year, rushing touchdowns accounted for just 386 scores as compared to 720 passing scores -- nearly a 2:1 ratio through the air.

This year, it's been a different story. There have been 94 rushing touchdowns in three weeks to 108 passing touchdowns. That would be an indication the ground attack is closing in on the passing attack. In Week 3, 38 scores came on the ground and 34 came through the air. Maybe it's the new wrinkle of teams putting a running back at QB in the shotgun formation. Time will tell, but for now it's safe to say the rushing touchdown is making a comeback.

Rookie QBs are 4-1

More mistakes are made when it comes to quarterbacks taken in the draft than any other position, and drafting a quarterback in the first round is particularly risky business in the NFL. One of the biggest reasons it is such a volatile position is that teams play these young signal callers before they are ready. This year, Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Baltimore's Joe Flacco have done nothing to discourage putting rookie first-round signal callers on the field right away. Or so it seems.

Ryan and Flacco are a combined 4-1 as starters. As Ravens coach John Harbaugh said to me the other day, the most important thing about QBs is whether or not they win the game. Both kids have completed at least 50 percent of their passes but neither has won on the road yet. Still, both have some impressive things to talk about at this point in their young careers.

Ryan already has four pass plays of 25 or more yards, and his team is converting 39 percent of its third downs. Flacco leads an offense that has converted 43 percent of its third downs. Both have handled the blitz better than expected for first year signal callers. So often, having a young quarterback under center means lots of three-and-out series by the offense. Ryan has had nine of his 34 series end in three plays; Flacco went three-and-out in seven of his 24 series. Percentage-wise, both are better than the Bears, Dolphins, Chiefs, Browns, Rams and Bengals. For now, the "rooks" are doing just fine!

Then again, both hit the road this week, with the Falcons playing division rival Carolina and Baltimore facing the Steelers on Monday night.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.