Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Why Rashard Mendenhall is so Vital to Ben Roethlisberger's Success

If I told you that Ben Roethlisberger posted a QB rating of 92.1 in the shotgun you may wonder why the Steelers don’t use that formation more often. But if I then told you that Roethlisberger has a QB rating of 109.9 when under center, then you may wonder why the Steelers use the shotgun period. That’s the question I’m wondering as well after Roethlisberger’s QB rating under center jumped 24 points from 2008 when it was around 85.

Perhaps the biggest reason why there was such a large jump for Big Ben is because of one player: Rashard Mendenhall. In 2008 the Steelers didn’t have much of a running game; the combo of Willie Parker and Mewelde Moore combined for just 3.9 yards per carry. In 2009 Mendenhall averaged 4.6 yards per carry, good enough for 7th in the league for players with at least 200 carries. The reason why Mendenhall helps Roethlisberger when he’s under center is because of the threat of the run. Defenses have to prepare for the run or the pass from that formation which means they can’t commit to one or the other. Put 8 in the box and Pittsburgh will throw the ball. Drop your safeties 20 yards from the line of scrimmage and you can expect a handoff to Mendenhall. But when Roethlisberger is in the shotgun, then the defense knows what to expect. There’s no threat of the run so the defenders can just watch the man they are covering or the zone they are occupying and pay no attention to the running back. Take a look at the chart below and you can clearly see when the Steelers spread the field with receivers and take the threat of the run out of the equation, Roethlisberger’s rating recedes like Santonio Holmes’ hairline. Yes the numbers are somewhat ambiguous as related to being under center vs. the shotgun due to the Steelers running multiple-receiver sets while Roethlisberger is under center. But for the shotgun, there is ALWAYS at least 3 receivers in the formation. (In the chart below, receivers are defined as any player split wide or in the slot including running backs and tight ends who are flexed out).

Another way lining up under center benefits the QB is the playaction pass.  This goes hand-in-hand with an effective ground game but the linebackers and safeties have that split second of hesitation whenever Roethlisberger fakes a handoff to the running back.  That split second could me the difference between a completion and an incompletion.  In the shotgun the playaction is almost laughable.  Thru all my years of watching football games, I have never been fooled whenever a QB runs the playaction out of the shotgun.  If I’m not fooled then I highly doubt that the players on the field are fooled either.  They know that the shotgun means there’s about a 95% chance of a pass and they react accordingly.  Perhaps this is a reason why Steelers president Art Rooney II said that he wants the team to run the ball more in 2010 which will increase offensive balance and decrease the number of hits Big Ben takes from the defense.  All of that should combine to put Pittsburgh right back into the Super Bowl hunt for the third time in six years.

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