Run or pass? How Ben Roethlisberger will always tell you what’s coming

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Last season, including the playoffs, per Sports Info Solutions, only the Chiefs passed from shotgun and pistol formations more than the Steelers, who did so on 712 dropbacks. Pittsburgh quarterbacks, primarily Ben Roethlisberger, completed 460 shotgun/pistol passes on 695 passes for 4,451 yards, 2,279 air yards, a league-leading 38 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, and a passer rating of 93.8 — 13th in the NFL. Pittsburgh’s shotgun passing EPA of 30.02 ranked 12th in the league; their Positive Play Rate of 47.7% ranked 23rd. As a running team out of shotgun or pistol, the Steelers had 215 attempts for 952 yards and four touchdowns; hardly a high rate (they didn’t run the ball a lot anyway last season), but decent enough. But only the Bengals had a worse shotgun running EPA than Pittsburgh’s -23.82, and no team had a worse Positive Play Rate in those instances than Pittsburgh’s 37.7%.

Why is any of this important? Because following the discovery made by a TikTok user named Theo Ash, the Steelers have one very important thing to clean up, or their offense could be in a heap of trouble.

What’s the problem? How Roethlisberger holds his left heel right before the snap.

@theoashnfl

Want to know if the Steelers are running or passing? Look at Big Ben’s feet #nfl #steelers #football #sports #browns #ravens #bigben #roethlisberger

♬ original sound – Theo Ash

When the Steelers pass out of shotgun, as Ash points out, Roethlisberger will life his left heel just a bit. When the Steelers run out of shotgun, Roethlisberger is flat-footed before the snap. Based on my tape study from the 2019 and 2020 seasons, this isn’t an isolated thing, or a reaction to a specific injury — as injury-plagued as Big Ben has been in the last few seasons, this happened in 2019, it happened in the Steelers’ Week 1 game against the Giants, and it happened in Pittsburgh’s wild-card loss to the Browns. We don’t know if teams were already on to this in 2020 and if their defensive players adjusted their schemes accordingly, but the secret is out now, and it is absolutely a problem because it is.

Here’s Roethlisberger throwing to halfback James Conner in Week 2 of the 2019 season against the Seahawks, before he suffered the elbow injury that cost him the rest of the season. Watch his left heel right before the snap.

Here’s a Conner run from that same game. Roethlisberger is flat-footed here.

Fast-forward to Week 1 of the 2020 season against the Giants, and here’s a Roethlisberger pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster in which Roethlisberger’s left heel is up.

And here’s a handoff to Conner in that same game, where Roethlisberger is flat-footed. You’ll also notice that Roethlisberger has a tendency to flare his left foot out a bit when it’s a run; this whole thing could be a way to take pressure off his knees.

It’s not that this happens once in a while in a game, or it happens in some games and not others. It happened in every snap I watched, and I watched over 100 snaps in multiple games from multiple seasons.

Just for grins, I went back to the Patriots-Steelers regular-season game in Roethlisberger’s rookie season of 2004, and he had the same tell back then. On this play, which has a back in the backfield out of shotgun, you know it’s a pass before the ball is snapped based on the position of his left heel. Not that teams ran nearly as much shotgun back then, so it wasn’t as much of an issue… but, still. You’d think somebody would have figured this out before.

Has this been a tip before that teams have used against the Steelers? Watching Roethlisberger’s interceptions from the 2020 season, I don’t see a pattern in which defensive players are obviously adjusting their assignments based on the pre-snap placement of his left heel. On this Sheldrick Redwine interception of a Roethlisberger pass in last season’s wild-card loss, you see safety Karl Joseph dropping deep, but he does so just before Roethlisberger tips his heel.

Now that it is public knowledge, you’d imagine that Roethlisberger and his coaches will clean this up. If they don’t… well, we’re in an NFL in which people are paid a lot of money, both players and coaches, to determine what opposing teams are doing before they do them. Giving opposing teams the pre-snap answers to the test regarding run or pass on every play would seem to be sub-optimal, and the Steelers’ offense has enough issues coming into the 2021 season without that being a factor. Having a Myles Garrett or an Aaron Donald knowing whether to go to a run blitz or a pass-rushing stunt based on your quarterback’s left heel seems like an invitation to disaster.