Tells are a big part of professional sports. The term “tell” — popularized in poker — means something that a person unintentionally does that gives away their intentions. Tells are also popular in baseball. There have been numerous cases of pitchers “tipping pitches” to reveal to hitters what kind of pitch they are about to throw. Padres pitcher Yu Darvish, while pitching for the Dodgers, famously tipped his pitches in the 2017 World Series against Houston that helped the Astros win the World Series that year. However, we now know that “other factors” played a big role as well.
Obviously, the key to taking advantage of these tells is realizing that they exist and using them to your advantage. If an athlete or team were to pick up on another player’s or team’s tells, they’d have a huge advantage in the game. So, what if I told you that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has a tell that indicates whether or not the Steelers are going to run or pass? Well, it’s true.
This play is going to be a run.
This one is a pass.
This is another pass.
This is a run.
Do you see it? By simply looking at Big Ben’s back foot prior to the snap anyone can determine what kind of play the Steelers are about to run. If he lifts his back heel, it’s a pass. If his back heel stays to the ground, it’s a run. Obviously, this only works when Roethlisberger is in the shotgun, but seeing as how the Steelers ran plays out of the gun 83 percent of the time in 2020 — the third-highest rate in the NFL — that shouldn’t matter too much.
I did not discover this tell. That distinction goes to TikTok user @theoashnfl, who posted this video exposing Roethlisberger’s tendency to the world:
This isn’t just a one-off tell for Roethlisberger either. I watched whatever footage I could find of the Steelers’ 2020 season and this method had a near 100 percent success rate. It even works for play-action. If you don’t believe me, here’s footage of an entire Steelers game from last season:
The Steelers’ first offensive play happens at 15:53. Go ahead. Test this theory. See the results for yourself first hand.
Roethlisberger has been doing this for forever. I went as far back as Roethlisberger’s rookie year (2004), and he still had this tell back then. However, the Steelers — and the entire NFL for that matter — lined up in shotgun formation far less often back then, so the tell wouldn’t have been as useful.
Now, you might be wondering:
“This happens right before the snap. Would it even be possible for a defense to communicate quickly enough to take advantage of this tell?”
Well, it doesn’t really matter. It’s not about the whole defense knowing what type of play is going to be run. It’s about just a few noticing and being able to commit to trying to stop the run or dropping back into pass coverage sooner. Even if only one player on defense knows what the play is going to be, that’s a huge advantage.
My only question is “how did people not recognize this sooner?” Roethlisberger has been in the league for over a decade and a half, and like I said earlier, he’s been doing this his entire career as far as I can tell. Maybe NFL teams do know about this tell and they’ve been keeping it under wraps. After all, the best way to lose the advantage of knowing a tell is to let your opponent know what their tell is. However, during Roethlisberger’s career there had to have been some defensive player or coach who joined the Steelers after a long career with another team who would’ve told Big Ben about this had he known, right? As much as NFL teams would like to keep that knowledge a secret, at least one guy definitely would have spilled the beans at some point.
I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. The cat’s out of the bag now. Roethlisberger might even be able to use this new knowledge to his advantage. Maybe he could start lifting his back heel before run plays to fool opposing defenses. Roethlisberger could take what was initially a detriment and turn it into an asset. That’s why you never reveal that you know a tell. They can start playing mind games with you. On the other hand, if Roethlisberger doesn’t fix this tendency, at the very least, you can impress your friends and family by predicting every single play the Steelers run. Maybe even throw a few five dollar bets in there for fun. There you go. Easy money. Now, you can buy a whole meal at Taco Bell. Just don’t tell them how you know.