Offense must communicate to avoid sacks
Sunday, September 28, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Defenses have schemed to stop Ben Roethlisberger with little success since he took the NFL by swarm in 2004.

The Steelers went 13-0 his rookie regular season, and his .707 winning percentage is second only to Tom Brady among NFL quarterbacks with at least 50 starts.

Yet most recently, defenses have devised one way to beat Roethlisberger with a high rate of success: Sack him. Bring Big Ben Roethlisberger down at least five times in a game and you can go home a winner.

Most NFL defenses could not do that in Roethlisberger's first two seasons, which resulted in his perfect record in 2004 and a Super Bowl victory in 2005. Only the Bengals managed to do it, sacking Roethlisberger seven times in Cincinnati in 2004 when, somehow, the Steelers still managed a 19-14 victory.

But over the past two seasons and the start of this one, Roethlisberger has been sacked at least five times in nine games and the Steelers have lost eight of them. Their only victory came in the Heinz Field muck last year against Miami, 3-0.

Any wonder, then, that the Steelers did not make the playoffs in 2006, barely made them last season and enter tomorrow night's game against Baltimore with an overriding goal to protect their quarterback.

"We're expecting Baltimore to bring everything at us,'' center Justin Hartwig said at midweek. "They saw the last film we put on tape; they're going to bring it, there's no doubt about it. They'll be coming from everywhere. That's what we're going to be practicing against all week. We need to pick that stuff up and we will."

Baltimore has two of those high sack games against Roethlisberger, both in 2006, including his career high of nine. The Eagles would have topped that last Sunday when they sacked Roethlisberger eight times, but should have been awarded a ninth when his knee touched the ground in the end zone; another was canceled by a penalty, and he avoided at least four more by scrambling for a yard or two.

That came one week after Cleveland sacked him four times in a 10-6 Steelers victory.

The sheer statistics should be alarming to the Steelers and to Roethlisberger's long-term health. In his first two seasons in the league, Roethlisberger was sacked 61 times in 32 starts (1.9 sacks per game), counting the post-season. Since then, he has started 33 games and been sacked 105 times (3.2 sacks per game).

This, even though Roethlisberger has gained more pro experience and is a big man who can move and shake off tacklers.

Something is seriously wrong. The buzz word for it all in the locker room the past week following the carnage in Philadelphia was "communication.''

"It basically comes down to communication, everyone being able to communicate,'' tackle Willie Colon said. "The bottom line is communication."

Hines Ward and others said it wasn't only the offensive line but everyone, with receivers and the quarterback missing or confusing their "hot" routes. Thursday, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians accepted the blame.

There seems plenty of blame to spread around, but the quarterback has not changed over the past five seasons, yet the rate of quarterback sacks has become frightening.

A scout from another NFL team saw the tape of the Steelers-Eagles game and thought the offensive line was confused, with linemen pointing in different directions as players on the Eagles defense moved around before the snap.

Colon confirmed that linemen were not cohesive in calling out their protections last Sunday.

"Some guys got flustered out there, losing their focus,'' Colon said. "The bullets start flying and you're trying to figure out what's going on and you want answers and the answers aren't getting back to you on the sideline, so I think some guys got flustered.

"We have to pretty much calm down out there and somehow figure out we're in a dog fight. Let's call one thing out and roll from there instead of each guy trying to figure out each little detail.

"It's been emphasized: We all say one thing, do it even if we're wrong, that's the key. Thing is, if we all say one thing and we do it right, even though it may be wrong, we're still right. But you can't have one guy saying one thing and another saying another. It's correctable, it really is."

If it were that one instance in Philadelphia, it would be easier to believe in the correctable theory. But this has gone on since 2006. Another NFL man thought the sudden spike in sacks in 2006 could be attributed to Roethlisberger's physical problems that season, starting with his motorcycle accident, then his appendectomy days before the season started and followed by his concussion in Atlanta.

Then last season they changed coaching staffs and with it two starting linemen. This year, two more linemen changed and one of them, Hartwig, believes that also was part of the problem in Philadelphia.

"It's just a matter of time for us,'' the veteran center, new to the Steelers, said. "We learned a lot from our last game. It was our first game in which they brought everything but the kitchen sink. It's a learning experience and we're going to get better."

It must happen quickly, because the Baltimore Ravens won't give them much time to recuperate.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at [email=""][/email].
First published on September 28, 2008 at 12:00 am