It’s rare for Pittsburgh Steelers starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to survive a season unscathed. By some miracle from above, Roethlisberger has yet to suffer a major on-field injury, but he has only started a full 16 games three times in his 13-year career. The Steelers have to constantly reload at backup quarterback and keep a plan ready for Roethlisberger’s inevitable absence.
Landry Jones has been the most recent understudy for Roethlisberger. Jones was drafted in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, but did not see regular season action until 2015. Through four starts and fifteen total appearances, Jones has completed 60.3 percent of his passes for 7.6 yards per attempt and a 7:6 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He hasn’t been a total disaster, but he’s more a product of Pittsburgh’s abundance of talent than anything else.
With Jones’ rookie contract up following the 2016 season, the Steelers decided to retain him on a cheap two-year contract. Jones’ return is most likely an opportunity for the Steelers to groom a quarterback to replace Jones and, when the time comes, possibly Roethlisberger.
This is where Joshua Dobbs comes into the fold. Dobbs, a two and a half year starter at Tennessee, was drafted in the fourth round by the Steelers, making him the seventh quarterback off the board. Not unlike DeShone Kizer at Notre Dame under Brian Kelly, Dobbs was entrenched in a tumultuous situation under head coach Butch Jones. After making Dobbs the starter halfway through his sophomore season, Jones pulled the reins back on the passing offense for Dobbs’ junior season, ultimately resulting in Dobbs having a down season.
Dobbs was able to rebound as a senior and post the best numbers of his career. The Tennessee offense revolved around Dobbs’ ability to test windows over the middle of the field, hang strong in the pocket, and be a threat on the ground. However, Dobbs’ mechanics and accuracy in the short game put handcuffs on the offense, and he had a propensity to play frazzled in tight situations. Dobbs is far from a sure thing, which is no surprise from a mid-round pick, but he has a skill set that the Steelers could develop into a legitimate NFL quarterback.
Vertical stems are the Alpha and the Omega in Pittsburgh’s passing offense. Roethlisberger is one of the best and most confident downfield passers in the league, so it only makes sense to cater the offense to being at its best when threatening beyond 15 yards. In addition to All-Pro wide receiver Antonio Brown and All-Pro running back Le’Veon Bell catching passes, the Steelers employ a myriad of speed receivers to create a constant vertical presence. The Steelers have a personnel group and offensive system that perfectly compliments each other.
The Steelers do their best to create 1-on-1 situations for Brown. On this play, Sammie Coates runs a loose corner route to the front left pylon and Eli Rogers runs a deep in-breaking route with a lengthy vertical stem that holds the safety in between the hashes. Brown is able to get solo coverage versus a cornerback with both safeties occupied, granting him a matchup that he’ll win far more often than not.
Complimentary to Pittsburgh’s vertical attack is how they use vertical stems to create for easier, shorter routes. The Steelers often use hi-lo concepts, such as ‘levels’ or a drive/dig combination, in order to put defenses on their heels and then dump off to the shorter routes. Since Pittsburgh’s receivers are an explosive bunch, they’re able to easily get open underneath and can often turn quick catches into chunks of yardage.
‘Drive’ is a common route for Steelers slot receivers. In short, the receiver is simply trying to cross the quarterback’s face within a few yards of the line of scrimmage and find space. The tight end’s route and the route of the lone receiver split out left create space for the slot receiver. The tight end is aligned just inside and ahead of the slot receiver, and carries vertically up the field for about 15 yards. With the tight end carrying up field, there is a natural wall created between the slot receiver and the defensive back aligned over the slot receiver. Likewise, the receiver split out left takes a deep vertical stem, completely vacating the flats area to that side of the field.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, the Miami Dolphins defensive back was able to find his way back to the receiver before anything got out of hand, but these are the types of easy receptions the Steelers like to create off of vertical stems. Every so often, these easy passes turn into explosive gains or scores.
The Steelers offense did look slightly different when Roethlisberger was out, though. When Jones was forced to play, the Steelers offense simplified itself, but didn’t necessarily stray from its roots. The offense was still as aggressive as usual. The difference was that the Steelers tended to stay away from ’empty’ formations with Jones at the helm, and the vertical concepts were often simplified to two-or-three man routes with heavy protections. Of course, the offense being toned down for the backup is to be expected, but it’s something to note in the event Dobbs is forced to play sooner than expected.
The Player Himself
Josh Dobbs was the best senior quarterback in the class. He has his flaws, as all of them do, but Dobbs’ key strengths lend to a skill set that can last in the NFL. Dobbs is a mobile quarterback, who has great promise as a pocket passer, particularly beyond 10 yards. While he’ll need to clean up his quick game accuracy and learn to be more prepared for critical situations, such as third down and the fourth quarter, it’s tough to not be intrigued by Dobbs’ tools.
This is the type of trust and accuracy that it’s going to take to maximize Pittsburgh’s offense. The Steelers often go to vertical routes down the seam and Roethlisberger has no reservations about attacking those windows. Dobbs shows here that not only is he willing to put the ball into tight windows, but that he has the touch to do it.
NFL quarterbacks have to be able to throw from uncomfortable platforms. Dobbs proved in college that he was a highly capable passer under duress. He sports the arm talent and vision to be able to navigate a broken pocket in order to find an open receiver. Both traits will come in quite handy in a Steelers offense that often turns to deeper drops and late-developing route concepts.
In addition to his passing potential, Dobbs can be a dual-threat, which will be especially handy in the red zone. Dobbs can be a designed runner, as well as a menacing scrambler. In the red zone, this could open up the Steelers offense a bit and allow them to be more creative with a better athlete at quarterback.
Dobbs is a phenomenal athlete. He has the quick-twitch to turn any snap into a big play with his legs. Throughout his career, Dobbs racked up seven 100+ yard games on the ground and totaled 32 rushing touchdowns. He’s a nuisance for defenses who expect to be able to coral the quarterback to the pocket. Dobbs can provide a little extra spark and leniency to an offense with his ability as a ball carrier.
Joshua Dobbs is not a star in the making, but he has plenty of baseline skills and his peaks mesh well with what the Steelers need in a backup quarterback. With Dobbs’ intelligence and rushing ability, the Steelers would be able to operate better out of ’empty’ with Dobbs than with Jones, though Jones’ experience in the system likely gives him an upper hand for now.
Dobbs should develop into a reliable backup quarterback who can be comfortably inserted into the starting lineup, if need be. Dobbs ability as an intermediate-to-deep passer and as a runner will give him the tools he needs to create the big plays that the Steelers count on. Though Jones is still under contract, it shouldn’t be long until Dobbs unseats him as the true backup quarterback.
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