Neither Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger nor Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton is expected to play in Thursday’s NFL exhibition finale at Bank of America Stadium.
But the two big-bodied passers have been linked since last December, when Panthers coach Ron Rivera first hinted that he wanted offensive coordinator Mike Shula to make changes to his scheme in the same manner the Steelers had in 2012.
The goal with both reboots was quarterback preservation.
Roethlisberger, who was then 30, was taking a beating in the pocket, having been sacked at least 40 times in five of the previous six seasons. It was not a recipe for longevity in the NFL, even for the 6-5, 240-pound quarterback known as “Big Ben.”
Enter offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who was given one overriding directive when he replaced Bruce Arians before the 2012 season.
“I think everything we did from the time that I came in was keeping the sacks down, which would mean less hits, less physical toll taken on the quarterback, who we obviously knew could take us where we wanted to go,” Haley said this week. “So everything really that we talked about as far as changes and tweaks, we put that at the forefront.”
Haley, who answered questions submitted via email by the Observer, said the changes involved implementing shorter routes to get the ball out of Roethlisberger’s hands faster, having the backs chip-block pass rushers on their way out of the backfield and getting the tight ends more involved in protections.
“Really it was just the mindset of, hey we’re going to get the sacks down,” Haley said. “And it didn’t happen overnight, but through time I think we’re all pretty proud of the direction we’ve gone.”
Panthers assistant receivers coach Jerricho Cotchery was a Steelers wide receiver when Haley was hired. Cotchery doesn’t remember hearing much during meetings about the offensive transition, but he says the changes were evident.
“There was a good collection of plays in there where you can get the ball in the playmakers’ hands,” Cotchery said this week. “As we see, it has taken hits off (Roethlisberger) since Todd has gotten there. That’s one thing you did notice.”
Roethlisberger has endured only one 40-sack season in the five years since Haley arrived. Last year Roethlisberger was sacked a career-low 17 times in 14 games.
It helps – as Cotchery mentioned – that Roethlisberger has a couple of dynamic game-changers in wideout Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell, who is expected to end his holdout Friday.
Haley, the former Chiefs coach, said while the scheme dictates getting the ball out quickly, Brown and Bell give Roethlisberger confidence that he doesn’t have to heave the ball “30 or 40 yards or hold the ball for four or five seconds” for a big play.
“If he gets it in these guy’s hands quickly they can turn short throws into big gains,” Haley said. “And the only way you do that is you have to have the players, obviously. But again it’s a mindset of the offense that we’re not going to throw the ball past the sticks every single play.”
That was what the Panthers had in mind when they drafted Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey and Ohio State wideout Curtis Samuel with their first two picks this year.
Newton, 28, has always had one of the league’s strongest arms, but those deep pass drops and slow-developing plays exposed Newton to too many hits in the pocket.
Things came to a head in 2016 when Newton sustained his first concussion, played the last several games with an injured shoulder, and talked with commissioner Roger Goodell about the personal-foul calls Newton wasn’t getting he believed other quarterbacks did.
The Panthers plan to use fewer read options and other called runs with Newton, while having him fire more quick-hitting passes to McCaffrey, Samuel and his other targets.
Rivera said this week the hope is Newton will be able to utilize his weapons in a way similar to Roethlisberger, who was selected to the Pro Bowl each of the last three years.
“I think it’s really about (the Steelers’) personnel and the way they use it. And that’s what we’re looking at – how to best utilize those guys,” Rivera said. “What’s the best way to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands and get the ball into our playmakers’ hands? That’s probably the biggest thing we try to take away from (Pittsburgh).”
Cotchery, in his first year on Rivera’s staff, likes what he’s seen so far from McCaffrey and Samuel, sidelined for most of the preseason with a hamstring injury.
“(McCaffrey) is an outstanding player,” Cotchery said. “We saw that on film. He’s been all of that and more since he’s been here. Wherever you put Christian on the field there’s an opportunity for a play to be made. We haven’t seen a lot of Curtis. But from the time that we have seen, it’s been good stuff.”