Steelers Film Room: Finding fault in decline of Steelers deep passing numbers among Ben, WRs

Justin K. Aller

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is completing 10 percent fewer deep passes (20-plus yards in the air) than he was in 2009-10. We dig into some reasons for that decline, highlighting ex-Steelers WR Emmanuel Sanders.

The completion of a deep pass in football is one of the most beautiful, satisfying moments in all of sports. Fans may not be counting the quarterback's steps, or measuring the angle of his shoulders or even see the receiver as he sprints off camera. But they know enough to know when the quarterback is going deep.

They feel the two extra steps back in the pocket - just enough added movement to break the cycle of the standard three-to-five step drops. They know without having proof when that back shoulder dips back enough - a subconscious and involuntary movement many quarterbacks make signaling their brain making the calculation on the parabolic arc needed to get the ball to the streaking receiver in a place he can catch it. Millions of gigabytes of information fire through his mind, the exhaust coming out in the form of subtle movements. After a while of watch the game, fans are conditioning to see those tiny queues, and feel a surge of excitement, almost in a precognitive sense the big play is coming.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger wears those cues all over his body, like a bad poker player, but one who manages to win anyway. For as athletic as the Steelers' franchise leading passer is, the herky-jerky way he loads his body up to chuck it long doesn't come as a surprise. He's never had the hair-trigger release time of a Dan Marino or a pre-surgically repaired neck Peyton Manning.

Sometimes his timing is thrown off because of it, but damned if he isn't going to try hocking it deep to make something happen. The common thought is Roethlisberger was more restrained from his Favre-ian desire to make plays. The reality is he attempted nearly twice as many 20-plus yard throws in 2013. Another misnomer is the Steelers wouldn't be able to stretch the field in 2013 without the departed Mike Wallace. Again, the stats show otherwise. Roethlisberger was 11-for-47 (31.9 percent) in 2012, and while he only played in 13 games, his body dragging through the final three in which he started, the Steelers and a healthy Roethlisberger opened the field vertically much more in 2013.

Roethlisberger, according to Pro Football Focus, was 24-for-76 (35.5 percent) on passes that traveled 20 yards or more through the air. Those 24 completions resulted in 730 yards and three touchdowns. There were four drops on throws at that distance in 2012, while only three were dropped in 2013.

Even with the statistical improvement, Roethlisberger still ranks in the bottom half of the league in deep passing (his 35.5 percent last year was his highest since 2010, when he was at 46.3 percent) since 2011. From 2009-10, he was 52-for-116 (46.6 percent), numbers that stack up well against Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees, two of the best deep ball throwers of all time.

There are myriad reasons for the decline. Blame the talent at receiver, the offensive scheme, the coordinator and/or philosophical changes, alleged shoulder injuries. The fact is something is missing.

Decision-making in and of itself has to be at least partially to blame. The training camp quotes last year about establishing Emmanuel Sanders as a viable deep threat weren't smokescreens; the Steelers went deep to Sanders on their first or second possession in three straight games to start the season. All of them came up empty.

This is the Steelers first offensive play of the 2013 season.

When Ben completes his drop-back, he has two receivers against three defensive backs. It appears Antonio Brown (top) may have been a bit more open when Ben is surveying the field, but Sanders has inside position, and the safety is on Brown's hash. He has to make the decision immediately, and part of that decision is "bullet or loft."

If he throws more of a flat pass with more velocity, it won't go as far, but if he lobs it more for distance, the safety has a chance to get outside the hash to make a play on the ball. This is a very difficult throw, but he put a little too much loft under it, which negated the inside position Sanders had. Watch Sanders' route from the beginning; a receiver wants to gain inside position on the defensive back because it puts him in the best position to catch the ball without the defender being in the way. Roethlisberger's throw went over the top of him, which is a much more difficult catch, but one in which the most likely result is no one catching it.

It travels about 49 yards in the air, but the length of time in which it took Roethlisberger to release it is part of the reason his deep passing numbers have declined since 2010. Wear and tear has taken its toll, and while he still can be an effective deep throwing quarterback, it's hard to see him regaining his 2009-10 form.

It's not all Ben, though. Sanders is fast; he's a good enough route-runner and has decent enough hands. He can't complete the trifecta of receiver dominance, standing a shade under six feet, but he's still capable of making plays - he carried a 14 yards-per-catch average last season. Overall, the contract he received is one of a second-tier receiver, and that's who Roethlisberger was throwing to.

And oh how badly Ben wanted to get him the ball. Sanders is able to gain separation on Bengals cornerback Adam Jones and is exactly where the play designed him to be. Sanders' focus was on slapping Jones' hands out of the way, and because of that, may have been a bit late bringing his hands into a catching position, but Ben has a clean pocket, and clearly sized up the throw from the instant the ball was snapped.

So who's fault is it? According to fans, fault lies on the player they like the least, which means this is 110 percent on Sanders. In reality, it shows how minuscule the difference between completion and incompletion really is. Sanders loses a bit of his balance jockeying for position with Jones, and appears to lose sight of the ball for a brief instant. But the receiver's primary function is to get into a position to make the catch. At the same time, the quarterback needs to throw a catchable pass. Sanders is running a fly, meaning Ben's job is to get the ball outside and deep. His throw sails a bit, like the first highlight, and is more to Sanders' inside, forcing Sanders to get outside and past the defender, then come back inside to make the catch. That's a lot of motion, and he comes a step away from the ball. The fastest, and most efficient, path between two points is a straight line. The receiver can only deviate from that straight line so many times before that efficiency is compromised.

Put it on both of them.

It isn't a coincidence the more snaps the offense took, the better it got. Sanders is a veteran receiver but he played multiple positions, none of the the exclusive X receiver, during his first three years with the team. The pair got their timing down at a bit better of a level as the season progressed, but it never came together consistently. Sanders had a few drops, Ben missed him a few times, and while Ben's deep numbers improved, he never found a way to make that one extra big completion a game that separates the top from the bottom of this list.

Sometimes, regardless of the small details, the play is run exactly how it should be. In a breakout moment from the Steelers' horrendous start, Ben's throw is a little behind Sanders after he completely fries Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

It's perhaps a bit over-critical to expect Sanders to be hit in stride, considering Ben sees the Jets defense is obviously in a state of confusion. Cromartie plays for the out-route, which is probably what he would do if he expected deep help. The safety appears to bite on the play fake and jump down on the tight end despite the linebacker still carrying him. Ben probably just wants to get rid of the ball as quickly as he can, considering how open he is.

It's a success for both Sanders, who does a great job selling an out-route while still maintaining a run-block posture. It's a success for Roethlisberger, a good, hard play fake and remains disciplined enough to get the ball down field as accurately and quickly as possible.

The fact the Steelers saw the fruits of execution meeting perfect timing shows there is optimism in Roethlisberger's ability to get the ball down the field. While he's becoming much stronger mentally as his cannon arm has rusted a little bit, his weapon of choice will be to pick apart defenses and set up plays like the last one; his hard play fake sets this up, eliminating the need for him to throw the receiver open.

The team's ability to run the ball successfully and Roethlisberger's patience in taking what the defense gives him is ultimately going to negate the ability to deliver laser-guided missile passes 60 yards down the field.

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