At 10-0, the Pittsburgh Steelers remain the league’s lone undefeated team. The Steelers have ridden the league’s best defense by DVOA and an offense that has been able to hit just enough to take advantage of the situation. While the offense ranks only 16th in offensive DVOA and 20th in yards per drive, the unit ranks ninth in points per drive.
Even an average offense is a significant improvement on what the offense was last season with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges at quarterback. The return of Ben Roethlisberger has clearly been a massive improvement upon what was at the position last season, but there remain flaws in the 38-year-old passer’s game that have been exposed throughout the season and could be a factor in how far the Steelers are able to go in the postseason.
The biggest deficiency has been on the deep ball, where Roethlisberger’s arm has been a weakness throughout the season. Roethlisberger’s deep accuracy and production have been near the worst in the league among quarterbacks on passes that traveled over 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Among 27 quarterbacks with at least 20 such attempts, Roethlisberger ranks 25th in completion percentage and 24th in on-target percentage, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Among those quarterbacks, Roethlisberger is 26th in EPA and one of two quarterbacks with negative EPA on such throws.
A lack of success on these deep passes has lowered the ceiling of the Pittsburgh offense; the Steelers only rank 23rd in explosive pass rate. It’s a concern if, say, Pittsburgh finds itself in an eventual shootout with the Kansas City Chiefs.
This isn’t entirely new for Roethlisberger, who hasn’t been a dead-eye accurate deep thrower over the latter part of his career. He hasn’t completed over 40% of his deep attempts since at least 2015 and over the past three seasons of play, he’s barely broken 30%.
Ben Roethlisberger 20+ Air Yard Passes, 2015-2020
The Steelers have gotten by without an above-average deep attack in past, but it’s clear the 2020 version of Roethlisberger has fallen even below that. Even without league-leading accuracy, the upside of those attempts was enough to carry an offense. That’s not the case this season.
Deteriorating arm strength from a veteran quarterback is certainly to blame and the type of throws Roethlisberger and the Steelers have been able to capitalize on presents a dilemma on these deep attempts.
Per SIS, no quarterback has thrown more straight go routes than Roethlisberger this season with 18 over 20 air yards. On those throws, Roethlisberger has completed six (33.3%) and has been on-target for eight (44.4%). Those aren’t great overall deep passing numbers, but they’re about league average for go-routes. The rest of the league has completed 32.9% of go-routes over 20 yards and has been on target on 42.5% of attempts.
The leaders in deep go routes are an interesting group mixed with quarterbacks who should and should not be attempting those routes at a high volume. Five quarterbacks this season have at least 10 such attempts:
2020 Leaders, Go Route Attempts
Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers have been effective deep throwers, but the older quarterbacks such as Roethlisberger and Tom Brady have struggled. Then there is Drew Lock, who loves to throw deep often (9.9-yard average depth of target, which is second-highest among quarterbacks per NFL Next Gen Stats) but has little accuracy to make those throws valuable. (Lock was the other quarterback with negative EPA on all throws over 20 yards.)
Those go routes account for 40.9% of Roethlisberger’s deep attempts in 2020. The problem with relying heavily on those routes is they present a low margin for error on ball placement. That type of deep accuracy just isn’t something Roethlisberger consistently has in his arsenal right now at a high volume.
When the receiver can’t get separation, Roethlisberger has tried to overcompensate in order to avoid the potential of an interception and that has led to overthrown passes, as was the case the last time the Steelers played the Baltimore Ravens:
Then even or more accurate throws, Roethlisberger’s throws loft in the air enough to keep the cornerback in play.
It’s not all a lost cause. Roethlisberger has been able to hit some of those go routes and it still looks pretty when he does.
Roethlisberger has a higher success rate on those go routes when he has been able to sit in the pocket and allow them to develop rather than more open-field fades, when the quarterback quickly puts the ball up and trusts the receiver to get open. Roethlisberger is just 1-for-8 on those throws, though five have been considered on-target, which brings up the low margin of error even more.
The bigger problem right now is that Roethlisberger has struggled on some of the deep passes that are designed to help the quarterback out. The Steelers aren’t a team that relies on play-action, or uses it much at all. That appears to be a Roethlisberger thing since the avoidance of the play-fake has spanned multiple years and offensive coordinators. Through Week 11, Pittsburgh had used play-action on just 10.6% of dropbacks, the lowest rate in the league. The next lowest is 17%.
Play-action can be used to open things up down the field, but Roethlisberger is 0-for-4 this season on deep shots off of play-action. Those four attempts rank 30th among quarterbacks.
Roethlisberger has also struggled on other routes designed to create separation. He’s a combined 0-for-6 on deep corner and post routes. The corner route, especially, can be a design that increases the margin for error by opening up the sideline. It’s a route another veteran quarterback Philip Rivers has used to make up for some of his lack of arm strength. But Roethlisberger hasn’t been able to take advantage.
The lack of deep ball success hasn’t killed the Steelers, at least yet, but it has potentially capped how explosive this offense can be. To this point, Roethlisberger has been a good enough point guard for this passing game. His average depth of target is just 7.4 yards, which is the 13th-lowest among qualified passers per NFL Next Gen Stats. His average completion, though, has come at just 4.7 yards beyond the line of scrimmage, which is the sixth-lowest mark in the league.
Pittsburgh has been able to get by with the work in the short game, but the lack of a consistent deep ball could loom as a bigger problem as the Steelers progress through the next part of the season and into the playoffs. Roethlisberger can only do so much to help himself by needing pinpoint accuracy on some of these covered deep throws, but he can also capitalize on the plays that have been designed to help him out. Without Roethlisberger hitting on those plays that should make deep passing easier, the Steelers have to rely on hitting on those lower percentage shots. That’s not a great place for an offense to be and that dynamic could shape how far the 2020 Steelers can go.