How to Avoid the Ben Roethlisberger Trap
The Pittsburgh Steelers could have had Justin Fields or Mac Jones.
They could easily have traded up in April's draft. Heck, the Bears did it. The Eagles were down to clown near the top of the draft board. You think the Jets, sitting just atop the Patriots, were so sold on Alijah Vera-Tucker (who admittedly is pretty impressive) that they wouldn't have traded their second first-round pick?
But the Steelers said "Nah, we're good." So good, in fact, that they drafted running back Najee Harris: no way they could have found talent at that position elsewhere. Now they're paying for it with what's turning into an organization-wide crisis about how to replace Old Man Roethlisberger.
No, this isn't a 20/20 hindsight situation; anyone who wasn't in a state of denial could see that the Steelers needed some sort of long-range succession plan/exit strategy by the end of last year. And yes, they slapped Dwayne Haskins onto the back of their depth chart. The fact that Haskins barely won a nip-and-tuck battle with Josh Dobbs for the third-string role behind Mason Rudolph is a pretty clear indicator of where his career is heading.
With Jones or Fields waiting in the wings, the Steelers could justify a quarterback switch to ownership, the locker room, and fans. Jones in Pittsburgh would look a lot like Jones in Foxboro: distributing short passes and earning hosannas for close losses. (Yes, the Steelers' line is far worse than New England's, but their receivers are much better, so it would roughly balance out). Fields would probably run hot 'n' cold based on the opponent and game situation, as he has with the Bears. Either quarterback would give the Steelers hope for the future, which is the real issue here: the organization's do-nothing approach to Big Ben's decline is going to cast a shadow over the next several years.
This segment isn't about ripping the Steelers, but about other teams who are in danger of falling into the Roethlisberger Trap, formerly known as the Eli Trap: holding onto a franchise quarterback into his Y.A. Tittle seasons out of wishful thinking, nostalgia, or counterproductive loyalty while burning the boats by not even trying to find an heir apparent until after it is too late.
Several NFL teams are at risk of being roughly where the Steelers are over the next few years. They need to start facing the problem now if they hope to avoid this fate.
Atlanta Falcons: Walkthrough covered them yesterday. Matt Ryan's contract is such a disaster that they can almost be forgiven for waiting until he becomes cuttable in 2023 before finding a successor. But the most precious commodity in the NFL is time, and the organization must do anything it can to avoid getting stuck in a holding pattern for two more years.
Los Angeles Rams: The Rams may not want to face this while Matthew Stafford is on an MVP run, but they just traded for a 33-year-old quarterback who appeared to be on the downside of his career before they liberated him from Detroit. They also don't pick in the first round again until (gulp) 2024. All the more reason for the Rams to be proactive about taking mid-round flyers and sifting through the Josh Rosen bin so they don't end up facing a crisis two years down the road.
Las Vegas Raiders: Yes, Derek Carr is hanging around the top 10 in DVOA again. If he has peaked as roughly the ninth-best quarterback in the NFL at age 30, he'll start declining soon, and he doesn't have a lot of cushion below him. Marcus Mariota made sense as a possible reclamation project replacement, but Mariota gets injured on every fifth snap these days, so it ain't happening. Jon Gruden would rather watch anime than groom a rookie, and heaven help us if Mike Mayock is tasked with finding a Carr successor (does Davis Mills have a brother?), but the Raiders should always be on the lookout for youngish castoffs for Gruden to tinker with.
Minnesota Vikings: If Kellen Mond really is the Dak Prescott-like sleeper some draftniks talked themselves into believing he is, the Vikings made a shrewd move by drafting him. And at least they had the right idea. What the Vikings must do ASAP is STOP EXTENDING KIRK COUSINS' CONTRACT. They are currently scheduled to quit Cousins cold turkey after the 2022 season. A segment of the scouting department should start planning for that happy day now, while the cap department needs to be fitted with anti-extension nicotine patches or something.
Seattle Seahawks: The issue here is that the Seahawks don't take backing Russell Wilson up seriously—they have really been tempting fate with Geno Smith for years—and their drafts are experimental art installations. They should take a break from drafting punters, running backs, and tackles they plan to move to guard in the middle rounds and start seeking potential answers to questions like "What happens if Russ tears his ACL?" or "What happens if Russ suddenly retires in a snit?"
Tennessee Titans: Ryan Tannehill is 33 years old and may be coming down from one-and-a-half lightning-in-a-bottle seasons. His backup is Logan Woodside. The Titans would be a third- or fourth-place team in most divisions, but playing in the AFC South could delude them into thinking they are one player away from the Super Bowl and ignoring the need for an eventual replacement until the floor gives out below them.
Bill Belichick knew the perils of the Roethlisberger Trap; his Jimmy Garoppolo gambit was too early and the Jarrett Stidham plan was too silly, but the underlying principle was sound. Andy Reid consistently drafted quarterbacks before he needed them, including Patrick Mahomes, and was canny about searching for reclamation projects such as Michael Vick. Even the Buccaneers drafted Kyle Trask during their repeat-or-bust offseason. Trask probably won't be anyone's quarterback of the future, but perhaps there's a 10% chance that early exposure to Tom Brady and Bruce Arians could make him a Carr-type, and Trask might be better than the QB1 on the 2022 draft board, let alone the QB2 or QB3 the Steelers could end up settling for.
The moral of the Steelers story is simple. Eat before you are hungry. Rest before you are tired. Change your oil before the dashboard light flickers on. And start searching for your next quarterback before you absolutely need one.
Five to Watch
Walkthrough searches far and wide to find players who will make an impact in Week 5, both in America and across the pond!
Jared Cook, Tight End, Los Angeles Chargers
Cook has more career receptions than Stefon Diggs, Odell Beckham Jr., Michael Thomas, Amari Cooper, Allen Robinson, Adam Thielen, Mohamed Sanu, or Ted Ginn Jr. His career dates back to the Jeff Fisher Titans, and poor Cook followed Fisher to the Rams, where his signature play was the 20-yard reception over the middle with a fumble at the end. His fumblitis went into remission as he bounced from Green Bay to Oakland to New Orleans as a receiving tight end for hire, and he earned a pair of Pro Bowl backup nods but never cracked the top tier of tight ends.
Cook, now 34 years old, went 6-70-1 on Monday night and has settled in as the fourth option in the Chargers' high-powered passing game. Justin Herbert is going to need Cook against a Browns defense that has allowed just 13 points in the last two games and will shut down the Chargers running attack. Cook came through for Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in the past; chances are he can keep coming through for Herbert.
Matt Prater, Kicker, Arizona Cardinals
Prater's 62-yard field goal before halftime helped the Cardinals hold off the Vikings in Week 2. His 55-yarder last week helped keep the Rams out of reach. His 68-yard attempt against the Jaguars? We can all agree that was a terrible idea. But do you like touchbacks? Prater, who often ceded kickoff duties to others when he was with the Lions, is producing touchbacks on 88.9% of his kickoffs.
Best of all, the 37-year-old Prater is staying healthy in a league where lots of teams are scrambling for kickers. Robbie Gould's injury kept the 49ers from mounting a lead when they were outplaying the Seahawks in the first half last week, which allowed the Seahawks to stay in the game and eventually win. Joey Slye will kick for the 49ers against the Cardinals this week. If the game comes down to field goals, Walkthrough's money is on Prater.
Damien Williams, Running Back, Chicago Bears
Justin Fields didn't improve in Week 2 because Bill Lazor is a better playcaller than Matt Nagy or because Fields just needed the game to slow down for him (though both things may be true). He improved because Williams and David Montgomery ran the ball effectively, putting Fields in better down-and-distance situations than he dealt with against the Browns and giving him the lead, which allowed him to take fewer risks.
Montgomery is out for four or five weeks with a knee injury, but Williams—whom you may remember as one of the heroes of Super Bowl LIV—should have no trouble keeping the Bears balanced against a Raiders defense that's beginning to spring some leaks.
Andrew Thomas, Offensive Tackle, New York Giants
Thomas followed up two shaky games to start the season with a pair of outstanding performances against the Falcons and Saints. Brian Baldinger couldn't stop gushing about Thomas in Baldy's Breakdowns.
.@Giants @allforgod_55 looked like a true Franchise Left Tackle yesterday and not surprising the #Giants played their best game under Father Joe Judge. They put it all together in front of #WhoDat #BaldysBreakdowns pic.twitter.com/i2AFYy7N8j
— Brian Baldinger (@BaldyNFL) October 4, 2021
Walkthrough has been accused of being a little rough on the Giants, because the secret to unbiased and credible analysis is to heap constant praise upon a franchise that has gone 19-49 over the last five seasons. Thomas looks rock-solid right now, and it's fun to listen to Baldy rave about the Giants offense, but … they trailed 21-10 midway through the fourth quarter against the Saints. They scored 14 points against Georgia Southern two weeks ago. Let's not grade the Giants on too remedial a curve here, folks.
Anyway, the Giants are 1-7 against the Cowboys dating back to 2017, and the lone win was Week 17 "we're PLAYOFF CONTENDERS at 6-10, bucko!" goofiness last year. Thomas could help the Giants turn Sunday's game into a shootout, which in turn could make it an upset. It's a slim chance, but not as slim as it looked like it would be two weeks ago.
Quincy Williams, Linebacker, New York Jets
When Walkthrough first saw Williams flying around the field in Week 4 against the Titans, we thought, "Hmm, Quinnen Williams slimmed down and is now playing linebacker. Clever gambit, Robert Saleh!" But no, Quincy is Quinnen's older brother, formerly a hustling special teamer for the Jaguars. The Williams brothers each recorded a sack last week, with Quincy adding 12 total tackles, two of them for a loss, plus a pass defensed.
Williams may be more of a high-energy runaround guy who makes a lot of plays against terrible teams than a budding superstar, but the Jets face the Falcons in London on Sunday, so … look for him to run around and make a lot of plays.
Leaderboard of the Week
Every Thursday, Walkthrough will examine a random (and usually obscure) leaderboard from Football Outsiders, Sports Info Solutions, or elsewhere on the analytics Interwebs in search of deep truths and wisdom.
Let's examine screen passes this week: wide receiver screens, running back screens, ill-begotten Dolphins screens, and so forth. We'll focus on team data instead of player data. All splits come from Sports Info Solutions.
First, the teams that have thrown the most screen passes this season:
|Most Screens, Weeks 1-4, 2021|
Leonard Fournette and Gio Bernard have combined for 11 catches for 107 yards on screens. Fournette has picked up four first downs on screens; Walkthrough feels compelled to mention it whenever Lenny does something useful. Chris Godwin has caught six receiver screens for just 41 yards, as the Bucs like to fire quick screens to the perimeter when the defense is playing too far off their receivers. Screens to Godwin and Lenny may not be the most scintillating plays in the Bucs' game plan, but they are logical counterpunches when opponents are reeling from Tampa Bay's deep aerial barrage.
The Eagles' offense consists entirely of screens, bombs, and read-options right now. It's fun to watch, and it has allowed them to move the ball somewhat effectively between the 20s, but it's unsustainable unless the Eagles' goal is to produce lots of receiving yards in the second halves of losses.
Rams tight end Tyler Higbee has caught six screens for 46 yards. A tight end screen is a fun little wrinkle to toss at opponents worried about getting burned deep. Cooper Kupp has gained 76 yards on four screens, because Cooper Kupp is awesome.
Davante Adams has caught nine screens for 45 yards. All the other Packers wide receivers have combined to catch three screens. Other teams might design some screens to get some touches for guys who aren't seeing the ball very much, but Aaron Rodgers would probably just audible out of them.
Fun-sized Cardinals rookie receiver Rondale Moore has caught 10 screens for 73 yards. Chase Edmonds has five screen receptions for 61 yards. Kliff Kingsbury is doing a better job keeping opponents off-balance and getting the ball to playmakers in space than he did last year. DeAndre Hopkins has caught just two screens, which provides an interesting contrast to the Packers' approach to their screen game.
Now for the teams that use screen passes the least:
|Fewest Screens, Weeks 1-4, 2021|
Lamar Jackson flares the ball to the perimeter at the snap now and then, but the Ravens have no running back screen game to speak of. They also rarely use tight end screens—Mark Andrews has been targeted for just three of them since 2019—which feels like a missed opportunity. It's not difficult to dream up tight end screen designs that fit within their option-heavy packages.
Austin Ekeler and Keenan Allen have caught two screens each. Golden Tate caught a whopping 29 screen passes for Joe Lombardi's 2015 Lions, so there are definitely more screen concepts in the Chargers' playbook than they have shown so far. Chances are they simply haven't had the opportunity or need to use them much yet.
Melvin Gordon has caught three screens for 21 yards and zero first downs. That's a very Melvin Gordon statline. Javonte Williams has dropped one screen pass and caught one for -4 yards. He has replaced Phillip Lindsay as the talented Broncos change-up back who ends up at the bottom of the receiving DYAR rankings.
Many screen designs are meant to complement a deep passing game (see the Bucs), so if a team doesn't have much of a deep passing game, it won't have much of a screen game. Alvin Kamara has only caught two screens this year, both because opponents don't have to respect the Saints' deep passing game very much and because defenses are unlikely to lose track of Kamara when he tries to leak out to catch one.
Taysom Hill has caught seven screens for 11 yards in his entire Saints career. Walkthrough's working theory is that Taysom would be just dandy in a Cordarrelle Patterson type of role, but the Saints are determined to not really use him that way.
Most teams would use screens to set up easy completions and YAC opportunities for either a creaky journeyman quarterback or his rookie replacement, but most teams aren't coached by someone with Matt Nagy's humongous football brain.
Yards per attempt are the most useful basic statistic for determining screen-pass efficacy because completion rates are close to 100%, interception rates are nearly zero, and touchdowns are rare and somewhat random. The Browns average an NFL-high 13.4 yards per screen on 16 attempts; Kareem Hunt, Jarvis Landry, and Demetric Felton have all delivered big plays on screens, and the Browns offensive line excels at open-field blocking.
Let's wrap this segment up with the teams with the lowest yards per attempt. We'll set the minimum at 10 screen pass attempts to keep teams like the Ravens and Bears off of the list: the following teams are trying to have a robust screen game, but failing:
|Worst YPA on Screens, Weeks 1-4, 2021|
|Minimum 10 screens|
Ah, there are the Steelers. They might not run quite as many screens as the Buccaneers or Eagles, but they look far more pathetic when they do.
The Dolphins have a miserable screen game because they have replacement-level running backs and their open-field blocking is terrible. When Jaylen Waddle catches a screen (he has done so seven times for 30 yards), three defenders are typically ready to converge on him.
Cole Beasley has caught six screens for 35 yards because he's so irreplaceable and wonderful. Christian McCaffrey is 5-for-28; again, it can be tricky to set up a screen to a guy the whole defense is keying upon. The lack of screen success is a big problem for the Steelers and Dolphins but probably just a statistical artifact for the Bills, who have spent most of the season so far sitting on healthy leads. For the Panthers it could still go either way.
The Jets are the Jets are the Jets.
Thursday Night Action: Los Angeles Rams (-2.5) at Seattle Seahawks
The Seahawks have only been home underdogs six times since 2013, the same number of times as the Patriots and the Chiefs! They're 2-4 ATS as home dogs, for what it's worth, which isn't much.
Home-field advantage might not be much of a thing anymore, but the Seahawks' arrhythmic pattern of looking like the 2007 Patriots for some halves, a normal team for others, and the Jets for a few others has definitely been a thing in 2021. The Rams are 4-1 ATS against the Seahawks in their last five meetings, including last year's playoff victory, and Walkthrough is comfortable laying the points.
Walkthrough is even more comfortable—some might say too comfortable—with first-quarter props. So we're also taking the Rams (-1) to lead after the first quarterback, because A) the Rams are outscoring opponents 27-7 in first quarters; and B) the Seahawks held a first-quarter three-and-out festival against the 49ers last week. The Seahawks may be due for one of their heroic halves, but it's a risk we're willing to take to add some sizzle to the early part of the game.