If going strictly by the eye test, most fans would realize that the 2019 Steelers had a significant decrease in deep passes in their games and from the previous year. Not only did the offense not throw the deep ball as often, the defense saw significantly less deep passes in 2019 according to the statistics at Pro Football Reference.
On pass plays of over 15 yards, either complete or incomplete, the Steelers attempted 23 fewer on offense this past season. In 2018 the Steelers thew 121 deep passes which averaged to just over 7.5 a game. The Steelers achieved a first down on 46 plays which was tied for the 10th most in the NFL. On the negative side, the Steelers also threw six interceptions on deep balls in 2018 which was tied for the 13th most in the NFL.
In 2019, the Steelers only attempted 98 deep passes on the season which was the 12th fewest in the NFL. Averaging just over six attempts a game, the Steelers only recorded a first down on 28 of their deep pass plays which was tied for next to last in the NFL. The Steelers also threw 12 interceptions on deep balls which was tied for the most in the league.
So not only did the Steelers attempt fewer deep passes this season, they threw twice as many interceptions on those passes. Obviously, the absence of Ben Roethlisberger can be attributed to the change in numbers. But a turnover rate of 13.3% of all the deep passes this past season was by far the worst in the NFL. The Steelers also saw their number of touchdowns on these passes decrease from 13 in 2018 to only 6 in 2019.
As much as the Steelers deep passing game fell off in 2019, the defense against the deep ball saw a complete turnaround. Once the Steelers added Minkah Fitzpatrick early in the season, they reached a point where teams just avoided throwing deep on a regular basis. Between the play of Fitzpatrick along with the addition of Steven Nelson in the off-season, Joe Haden finally received much needed help in the Steelers’ secondary.
So how much did the Steelers new additions help on defense? In 2018 the Steelers faced 115 deep passes which was over seven per game and was the fourth most in the NFL. In 2019, the Steelers faced only 84 deep passes which was only 5.25 per game and was the fifth fewest in the league. The Steelers also allowed the third fewest first downs in the NFL this season with 31 which was down from 40 first downs in 2018 which was tied for the 12th fewest that season.
The biggest difference in defending the deep ball in 2019 was the Steelers had nine interceptions which was tied for third most in the NFL while in 2018 the only managed four which was tied for the fifth fewest. The Steelers also cut the number of touchdowns given up to five this season as compared to nine in 2018.
While the numbers are enough to notice, some may seem to not be that big of a difference. But when the Steelers flipped from the bottom of the league to the top when it comes to rankings, it shows the defense has made the turn from being a liability to a strength. Unfortunately, the same flip occurred on offense which ultimately balanced out the defense’s success.
While measuring passes attempted over 15 yards in the NFL is not the only factor in the team success, it does show defensively that teams had a greater respect for the Steelers’ secondary and their ability to make plays. As for the offense, the Steelers just didn’t have the weapons in 2019 to have an effective downfield passing game.