By Tony DelSignore Jr.
Entering his 11th season in the NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will look to pick up where he left off in 2013. Winning six of the last nine games, the Steelers and offensive coordinator Todd Haley allowed Roethlisberger to play in his comfort zone, the no-huddle offense. During that nine game stretch, Roethlisberger passed for 20 of his 28 touchdowns on the season.
The no-huddle offense is so much more than a quick, pass heavy offense. The Steelers are at their best offensively when they can mix the run and pass and allow Roethlisberger to work the play action passing game. A healthy Le’Veon Bell seemed to turn the tides for the Steelers offense. As Bell improved toward the end of his rookie season, he gave the Steelers a formidable threat at the running back position as both a runner and receiver. Ben finally had an outlet in the backfield, as evidenced by Bell’s 45 receptions as a rookie. Now fully recovered from his foot injury, expect Bell to build on his 4.0 yards per carry average over the final five games of the season. With LeGarrette Blount and Dri Archer also in the mix, expect the Steelers to keep defenses on their toes throughout the season with the running attack, which in turn, should allow the passing game to function very efficiently.
The biggest question coming into the season is; what are the Steelers going to get from their wide receivers? We know that Antonio Brown is an emerging star in the NFL. His 110 reception, 1,499 yard campaign was one of the best in Steelers history. Brown will continue to produce at an all-pro level this season if the young receivers can help spread coverage in the secondary.
It is impossible to ignore the huge piece of the Steelers passing game that departed in free agency. Jerricho Cotchery became a security blanket and true red-zone threat for Roethlisberger in 2013. Cotchery’s 10 touchdowns in 2013 tied for third most in Steelers history. As much as Emmanuel Sanders frustrated Steelers coaches and fans at times, he did have his best season as a pro last year. Sanders and Cotchery vacated a combined 113 catches, 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns in the Steelers offense.
Veteran Lance Moore was brought in this offseason to be a replacement for Cotchery. Moore was very effective in New Orleans as the slot receiver for several years. Last year, Moore was hobbled by numerous injuries but had 22 touchdowns over the previous three seasons. The upside for Roethlisberger is that Moore registered his best season as a pro in 2012, when he tallied 65 receptions, 1,041 yards and six touchdowns.
For Roethlisberger to produce as an elite fantasy passer this season, youngsters Markus Wheaton, Martavis Bryant and Justin Brown have to emerge as threats alongside Antonio Brown. For my money, Wheaton is the man to make a name for himself in the passing game this season. The third round pick out of Oregon Stateentered the 2013 season with expectations to contribute in the Steelers passing game as a rookie. However, numerous hand and finger injuries prevented him from making any impact on the field. Wheaton only caught six passes on 151 offensive snaps all season long, three in both Weeks 4 and 6. What is promising is that five of those six receptions went for first downs. The hand injuries are behind him, and Wheaton is sitting at the number two spot on the Steelers depth chart. Opportunity is knocking for Wheaton to emerge as the next Steelers draft pick to star at wide receiver. Bryant is also an exciting prospect that may give the Steelers passing game a boost. His 6’4” height and 4.4 speed may give Big Ben the big red zone target he has been clamoring for.
Aside from the receivers and running backs, a healthy Heath Miller will make a big difference for Big Ben in 2014. Miller is a huge part of the red-zone passing success that the Steelers had had over the years. Still hobbled by his gruesome knee injury, Miller was unable to return to his elite form in 2013. This season, look for a big uptick in production from Heath. Ben will surely target him early and often to move the chains and convert in the red-zone. Miller is the most logical choice to replace Cotchery’s impressive red-zone production.
Entering the third year in Todd Haley’s offensive scheme with a healthy offensive line and a talented stable of skill position players, Roethlisberger will present a great draft day value for your fantasy team. According to Fantasy Football Calculator (which tracks average draft position of every player in real and mock fantasy drafts throughout the offseason), Big Ben is being selected as the 15th quarterback in the middle of the 11th round (*based on standard 12 team, 16 round drafts).
Roethlisberger is a great target for fantasy squads that want to load up on running backs and wide receivers early in the draft. Last season, he finished as the 12th quarterback in ESPN standard scoring. Among the 11 passers who finished above him in fantasy scoring, only five had more pass attempts. Mike Clay, of Pro Football Focus, projects the Steelers to have a 61/39% pass to run ratio. I believe it will be more in the 55% range based on game flow. The Steelers were trailing in many games last season which lead to more passing attempts. If Ben does see near 550 passing attempts 2014, he should have a nice, safe floor for fantasy teams.
Although Roethlisberger does have one top five finish in fantasy scoring, when he ranked fourth back in 2007, over the past three seasons, he has an average finish of 14th in fantasy scoring among quarterbacks. This season, look for Roethlisberger to finish in the 10-12 range with upside for more if the Steelers lean on the pass more than expected.
My season projections for Ben are: 355 completions / 570 attempts, 4,325 yards, 31 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 1 rushing touchdown.
Follow me on Twitter at @TonyD_12 and @SteelersDepot for more Steelers fantasy analysis and projections throughout the 2014 season.