While most view his season-ending injury as detrimental to the Steelers' title chances, I believe there could be a silver lining in his departure.
» The Steelers' offense flows better when the game is on Big Ben's shoulders.As the NFL continues to become a quarterback-centric passing league, more teams are willing to put their postseason fates in the hands of their signal-callers. In Pittsburgh, that means entrusting the offense to the best improvisational playmaker in the game.
Fans of Michael Vick and Cam Newton might scoff at the notion that Big Ben is a better improviser, but it is hard to dispute Roethlisberger's remarkable ability and unorthodox style. His ability to buy time with his feet frequently results in big passing plays. From nabbing first downs with nifty scrambles to connecting on impromptu roll-out passes, Roethlisberger is at his best when playing like he's on the sandlot and making things happen on the perimeter.
His nagging ankle injury will limit his mobility, but the fact that he played in the regular-season finale leads me to believe he is rounding back into form. If he can regain some of the movement skills that have been critical to his success, the Steelers can expect a few unscripted scrambles that result in big gains. Such moments frustrate opponents and allow Pittsburgh to move the chains.
Roethlisberger doesn't just make improvisational magic; he is also capable of picking apart defenses with pinpoint strikes from the pocket. He has become more efficient when making short and intermediate passes, enabling him to stretch the defense at every level. His ability to work effectively between the hashes prevents opponents from attacking Steelers wide receivers Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace with variations of two-deep coverage.
Looking at several of the Steelers' most productive offensive performances, including their 25-17 win over the New England Patriots, the common denominator is Roethlisberger's efficient play from the pocket. This was partly made possible by the team's increased utilization of spread and empty formations, which helped Roethlisberger quickly identify potential rushers and exploit weaknesses in coverage.
In addition, the Steelers used a wide variety of their "bunch" formation (in which two or three receivers are closely aligned) to create easy throws for Roethlisberger. Bunching the receivers together prevents defenders from pressing at the line of scrimmage. The threat of switch or crossing routes forces some teams to abandon man-to-man coverage against the formation. Because receivers are thus able to get into their routes unimpeded, a quarterback who can make precisely timed and accurate throws can cause problems for opponents.
» Brown and Wallace will receive more touches. This could spell trouble for defenses. Their emergence has transformed the Steelers' receiver corps into one of the NFL's most explosive units. The talented tandem has 141 combined receptions for 2,301 yards and 10 touchdowns, and the pair has become Roethlisberger's top receiving options.
Wallace, who leads the team in receptions and touchdowns, has developed into a more refined route-runner after spending his first two seasons as the Steelers' primary vertical weapon. He is more comfortable running intermediate routes on the outside, and his spectacular speed and running skills make him a threat to score from anywhere on the field.
Without the ability to use Mendenhall to provide balance on the ground, the Steelers might turn to a controlled passing game featuring an assortment of short throws designed to quickly get the ball to receivers in the open field. Given Wallace's explosiveness, a missed tackle in space could turn a short pass into a big Pittsburgh gain.
Brown is just as dangerous as Wallace in the open field. An accomplished punt returner with outstanding speed and quickness, he can quickly maneuver through traffic with the ball in his hands and shows an uncanny knack for getting to the outside. His superb running skills prompted the Steelers to routinely get him the ball on bubble screens and crossing routes. He has also started to get touches on vertical throws, keeping defenders from extensively cheating to Wallace's side. If Roethlisberger can continue to find Brown for an occasional deep shot, defensive coordinators will have to adjust how they deal with the Steelers' passing game.
» Isaac Redman and John Clay give the Steelers' running game a different dimension. The combination of Redman and Clay gives the offense a punishing downhill running attack that will pose problems for opponents. Losing Mendenhall is certainly significant, but it could be a blessing in disguise for the Steelers.
While Mendenhall liked to work on the edges of defenses with various off-tackle plays, Redman and Clay excel at grinding between the tackles. Both are north-south runners with the size and strength to move the pile, and their ability to run through initial contact will wear down opponents in the fourth quarter.
I was impressed with their physicality and toughness against the Cleveland Browns. Redman, in particular, repeatedly ran through defenders in the hole and finished his runs aggressively. Although he fumbled twice in the fourth quarter, his powerful style evoked memories of Jerome Bettis. Opponents will have to be prepared to handle the bruising runner out of the Steelers' open formations.
Redman and Clay make the Steelers one of the few playoff teams that can seamlessly shift styles within a game.