When Pittsburgh Steelers fans think back to the beginning of the 2017 regular season, several thoughts likely go through their heads. Le’Veon Bell’s late arrival and slow start might top the list, but Ben Roethlisberger’s struggles in the early going might also be a talking point.
In Weeks 1-4, Roethlisberger didn’t sniff the 300-yard passing plateau, and overall just didn’t seem to find his groove. This was capped off with the dreadful Jacksonville Jaguars game in Week 5 when Roethlisberger did eclipse the 300-yard mark, but had to throw the ball 55 times to do so.
Oh, and he also threw five interceptions in the process.
Steelers fans across the globe were hitting the panic button with force and regularity, so when I had the opportunity to ask Bryan Knowles of Football Outsiders some Black-and-gold questions, I had to ask him about Roethlisberger’s early season struggles last year.
Here is what he said:
His “rough start” was somewhat overblown, to be honest with you. Roethlisberger’s DVOA from Weeks 1-4 (so, right up until the Jaguars game) was 21.9%. His DVOA from Weeks 6-17 (so, right after the Jaguars game) was 27.7% -- better, but not exactly a gigantic improvement. His two worst games of the year came in the first five weeks – Jacksonville and Chicago – but his most efficient game of the year by DVOA was Week 2 against Minnesota; while 23-for-35 for 243 yards and a couple touchdowns doesn’t jump off the page at you, it’s the most efficient performance anyone had against the stingy Vikings defense in the regular season. Basically, the Jaguars implosion and Roethlisberger’s post-game “maybe I don’t have it” comments makes his first month or so seem worse than it was.
His DVOA during that Jaguars game was -21.3%, which ranked ninth out of the 16 quarterbacks who started against the Jaguars last year. Jacksonville made a lot of people look foolish last year, though, admittedly, the list of the quarterbacks Big Ben did better than isn’t exactly a who’s-who of great quarterbacks (Joe Flacco, anyone? DeShone Kizer? T.J. Yates?).
That doesn’t mean there aren’t splits we can notice here. In Weeks 1-5, Roethlisberger was throwing deeper and his receivers were getting less yards after the catch than in Weeks 6-17. Some of that is the emergence of JuJu Smith-Schuster as he replaced Martavis Bryant as the second target. Play selection improved as well – for instance, the Steelers threw 15 wide receiver screens in Weeks 1-5, and just 16 in Weeks 6-16. The Steelers’ three worst routes last season were running back screens, receiver screens and dig routes, and they used each less later in the season.
In my opinion, this explanation and statistical analysis, not only of Roethlisberger’s start, but also of why the offense might not have been up to snuff early in the season is tremendous. While the perception of Roethlisberger having a slow start might have been a bit overblown, it’s great to put some statistical context behind the narrative.