Smarter Stats: Roethlisberger’s injury could be Tebow’s best chance for an upset

Doug Farrar

Given that Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow is the only NFL quarterback whose success rate is determined by his defense for the most part, the recent ankle injury suffered by Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is actually a potential boon to Tebow's hopes in the wild-card battle between the Broncos and Steelers this afternoon in Denver. Since Big Ben hurt his ankle in the second quarter against the Cleveland Browns on December 8, the Steelers have scored two touchdowns and just 23 points when Big Ben has been in the games. And Roethlisberger has thrown one touchdown pass and four interceptions since then.

Not only does the injury affect Roethlisberger's mobility — always one of the keys to his success in the passing game — but as Kurt Warner pointed out on Sunday morning's NFL Network pregame show, it's also affecting Roethlisberger's ability to sit in the pocket, plant his feet, and throw correctly.

That said, the Broncos aren't planning for a subpar Roethlisberger — a smart way to go, given Big Ben's history of playing surprisingly well through serious injuries. "He still has good pocket awareness whether he can move as well as he'd like," Broncos cornerback Andre Goodman said on Friday. "We won't know until we get out there, but his pocket awareness hasn't shown any lapses whatsoever. I think that's one of his big assets, and for a defense, you still have to be aware of him extending the play."

But will they change the gameplan if it's obvious that Roethlisberger's hurt and unable to move? "The way we're going to give ourselves a chance to win from a defensive standpoint is being able to put pressure on him whether he's wounded or not," Goodman said. "However we are able to do that is going to go a long way in determining how well we succeed in this game."

If the Broncos' defense can prevent the Steelers fronm scoring, that plays well into Tebow's hands. Offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has done Tebow a great favor in tailoring the offense around his limited palette, but the one thing Tebow still doesn't know how to do is to throw the ball in a drive-sustaining fashion when the Broncos are in the lead.

Since he became the starter, Tebow has thrown just 15 passes, completing six, for 104 yards and one touchdown when the Broncos are leading in a game. That's when the run package comes out, which is fine in the abstract. However, giving such predictability to a Steelers defense known for situational brilliance over the last decade probably isn't the best game plan. And if the Steelers are able to score, that's double trouble for Tebow. Reasonably efficient as a passer when the game is tied, Tebow is at his most vulnerable when the Broncos are trailing, and it's worse the more they're behind.

When the Broncos are losing by 1-7 points, Tebow has competed 43 0f 100 passes for 672 yards, five touchdowns, and one interception. When they're losing by more than two touchdowns, he's 33 of 60 for 421 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions. The solution is clear — make Tebow press, and your chances are great.

Still. McCoy doesn't seem to see a reason to change his spots. "We're trying to do whatever it takes to win," he said this week. "We did a great job running the football this year. We set a franchise record for running the football, the yards we had. When you average 4.8 yards a carry—we have a strong belief that we're going to average that, if not more, on a day-to-day basis. We're just trying to win football games. We are just trying to do whatever it takes. No matter the situation is in the game, that's what we're going to do whether it's throw the ball a little more, that's what we are going to do. If it's run it like we've been doing, we'll see how it goes."

If Big Ben is kept in the box and the Steelers are unable to light up the scoreboard, it's a strategy that may work. But any other situation could leave the Broncos wondering "what if?" That's why they're rumored to have third-and-long packages ready for backup Brady Quinn, but a system that allowed their starter to move into the passing game more easily and organically would make more sense.