The Steelers' quarterback remains one of the toughest to bring to the ground and the Redskins defense knows it must take a team effort to stop him.
"You've got to finish."
The words, uttered by linebacker Preston Smith, are the mission statement for the Redskins defense this week as they prepare to face Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who provides no easy task in going down.
At 6-foot-5, 240 pounds, Roethlisberger plays, at least when he begins to scramble, as though he's a linebacker, usually taking at least two bodies to get him on the ground. That ability to extend plays with his feet has helped him avoid losing big chunks of yards. When in trouble – grabbed by an opponent or flushed out of the pocket – Roethlisberger has been able to throw the ball away or downfield to a receiver far more times than he's taken a sack.
In fact, last season, he was sacked just 20 times and had the lowest sack percentage in his career (although he played in just 12 games), a testament to both his offensive line and his perpetual, physical maneuvering.
"I think the No. 1 thing with him is that he's such a big body back there," defensive coordinator Joe Barry said. "He's a big man to come in and tackle. We talk about – and every time I've ever gone against him – the thing that we preach is you want to tackle the ball, you don't necessarily want to tackle him. Because he's been doing it for however long – 12 or 13 years. He's proven he's tough to tackle just because he's so big. Especially you see undersized linebackers or DBs literally just fall off him and bounce off him. He's able to make the unbalanced throws so well just because he's so big and so strong."
The Redskins are wary of this fact. Especially as the league becomes more nickel and dime package-happy, fewer big bodies are on the field to help. Roethlisberger doesn't typically rush for yardage when he begins scrambling, however, which makes covering receivers such as Antonio Brown an extended task.
Last season Roethlisberger rushed for just 29 yards on 15 attempts and rushed for even fewer (27) the year before on more attempts (33). Defensive backs won't have to worry as much about breaking off an opponent to find the quarterback in the open field, but that will require sticking to their receivers for longer period of time.
That provides its own challenges of course. It's part of the reason why getting a successful pass rush will be instrumental in disrupting Roethlisberger's dodging and ad-libbing.
Check out these photos of the Redskins' defense and special teams preparing for their Week 1 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, at the Inova Sports Performance Center at Redskins Park.
"You've got to make sure that you bring him down, that you bring everything with you and you're conscious of when you get attached to him," Smith said. "Make sure you hold him and you keep him from completing the pass because he completes passes with people attached to him. He still gets the ball off. He still extends plays with his size and his capability."
"The pass rush is huge," Barry said. "With a team that does throw the ball, throws the ball well, as we talked about, they have a featured wide out, so I think it's always an ongoing battle when you talk about pass rush – not only rushing, but winning, finishing."
Roethlisberger, entering his 13th year in the league, is prone to air it out once he starts improvising. According to defensive end Ricky Jean Francois, as long as the defensive line stays sound in its responsibilities, it will prevent the type of backyard football that's made the Steelers offense so dangerous.
"We're just going to have to get off the ball and work our technique. Got to work our fundamentals against them. Big man's going to have his ways of releasing the ball and getting it to Antonio [Brown], giving it to DeAngelo Williams," Jean Francois said. "But even just getting to him, that might definitely be a hard part. The harder part is trying to get him down, because that's not a normal sized quarterback you see every day."