Ben Roethlisberger spent the offseason focused on diet and exercise. Hopefully, he spent some time watching film, too.
If he didn’t, he will now.
As pointed out by @theoashnfl on TikTok and explained by Joe Hoefling of Deadspin.com, Roethlisberger has a very basic yet very clear pre-snap tell, which gives away whether the next play will be a run or a pass.
It comes in shotgun formation, which the Steelers use for the vast majority of their offensive plays. (Via Warren Sharp, 83 percent of the team’s 2020 offensive snaps came in shotgun, third in the NFL behind the Ravens at 97 percent and the Cardinals at 92.)
It goes like this: When it’s a run, Roethlisberger stands flat-footed before the snap. When it’s a pass, he lifts his left heel off the ground before the snap. He does that even when he fakes the handoff before throwing the ball.
Anyone who has ever heard someone like Chris Spielman explain the process of breaking down film for tendencies or tells (and it’s mesmerizing) will tell you that this is precisely the kind of thing for which defensive coaches and players spend hours searching. The teams that have prepared to play the Steelers surely have seen it, and they undoubtedly have incorporated it into their planning.
Maybe that’s why the Steelers couldn’t run the ball very well last year. If the defense knows the answer to the fundamental of run or pass before the snap, it changes everything.
It also may help explain the drops by Pittsburgh’s receivers. The linebackers and defensive backs who get a look at Ben’s left foot know before the play begins that he’s going to be throwing the ball to someone who can then be targeted for a big (and clean and legal) hit. That can either jar the ball loose and/or get the receiver who is bracing for the next big (and clean and legal) hit to lose focus on catching the ball.
There’s another important point here that underscores one of the concerns that had been raised regarding the team’s offense last season. When using the run-pass option, Ben seemed to lean too heavily toward the pass. Based on his left-foot tell, he apparently made the decision before the snap, eschewing the challenge of reading the defense during the play to determine whether to hand it off or hold it and throw.
And there’s no telling how long this tell has been in place. The attached photo comes from Super Bowl XLIII, and it shows why he’s inclined to lift his back heel before the snap. His first motion once the snap starts is to lift that foot off the ground.
If the Steelers didn’t already know about it, they do now. And they need to iron it out before Week One at Buffalo.
The fact that it happened all year long makes the team’s 11-0 start even more impressive. It’s hard enough to win one game when the defense can crack the run-or-pass code on a consistent basis. It’s damn near impossible to win five, six, seven, or more.
So this is good news for the Steelers. Take away that tell, and the offense immediately becomes more unpredictable and, in turn, harder to stop. Throw in a defense that still has plenty of great players, and the Steelers could be ready to make a serious run at the top of a top-heavy conference.