Phil Simms told me once that as a quarterback, you hope to reach a point in which your mental ability is at peak level and your physical abilities are still sharp. It doesn't happen for everyone. Often by the time a quarterback has mastered the mental part of the game, his physical skills have diminished.
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger finds himself in the ideal zone that Simms was talking about.
Roethlisberger is incredibly comfortable with the mental side of the game, in his 12th season. Physically, at age 33, he’s still in his prime. He is playing at the highest level of his career, and he’s playing at as high of a level as anyone in the NFL right now. That includes Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. Roethlisberger is right there with them.
Last week against San Francisco, Roethlisberger showed his mastery of all aspects of the game. Let’s take a look at a few plays that illustrate that.
The 49ers ran a hybrid defense in Week 1, and again in Week 2. On a third-and-10 play, they showed elements of a “Cover 2” zone with safety Jaquiski Tartt playing the middle in trail-man technique. That can be a confusing defense, and as you can see, the 49ers disguised it really well before the snap. But Roethlisberger figured it out right away and knew how to beat it. He threw a fade to Antonio Brown that beat retreating safety Eric Reid. It’s a big-time throw (and a big-time catch as well).
A lot of credit for Roethlisberger's play also needs to be given to offensive coordinator Todd Haley. It’s clear that Roethlisberger is more comfortable in the pocket than he has ever been; his body language tells you that. Haley, in turn, is comfortable knowing what Roethlisberger can do, and can design plays that he knows Roethlisberger can process and execute.
This is a difficult play, but Haley had confidence that Roethlisberger could execute it. On a third and 5, the Steelers lined up Heath Miller and Darrius Heyward-Bey to the same side. Miller ran a crossing route to eat up safety Antoine Bethea. On the other side of the field, Brown ran an outside vertical route to eat up the other safety. Roethlisberger rolled left, bringing the flow of the defense with him, then stopped and threw it back across the field to Heyward-Bey on a deep post for a 41-yard gain. It’s a really tough throw, and Roethlisberger made an unbelievable play. You have to trust your quarterback completely to draw that up.
For as big as Roethlisberger is, I wouldn’t say he’s a power thrower, like Joe Flacco or Matthew Stafford. I’d classify him as a quarterback who delivers the ball with touch and finesse (we saw his accuracy at work the previous two plays), but can make a power throw when he needs to.
On another third down, Roethlisberger delivered a ball with velocity and also precise ball location. San Francisco cornerback Kenneth Acker had tight man coverage on Brown, but Roethlisberger simply made a great throw for the 12-yard gain and a first down.
It’s all working for Roethlisberger now. He has all the physical skills to make really difficult throws. He’s comfortable in the Steelers’ offense, with a coordinator who understands what he’s capable of. Early in Roethlisberger’s career he was mostly a spontaneous player, and not necessarily a cerebral one. He was a big oak tree who could get people off him and make plays late in the down. And he had plenty of success back then. However, now he has mastered the nuances of playing quarterback at a really high level. He is a refined pocket quarterback.
As a result, Roethlisberger is operating at a really impressive level. Roethlisberger doesn't always get talked about with the same reverence people reserve for Rodgers and Brady, but right now he's playing just as well as those two, or anyone else.
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NFL analyst and NFL Films senior producer Greg Cosell watches as much NFL game film as anyone. Throughout the season, Cosell will join Shutdown Corner to share his observations on the teams, schemes and personnel from around the league.