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Will the Steelers have to move on from their short passing game in order to make the Super Bowl?

Historically, yards per attempt has proven to be a vital statistic as it pertains to Super Bowl success. With Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger currently adopting a short-passing philosophy that has his average at 6.4, will there need to be shift in philosophy and a return of No. 7’s old gunslinger ways?

Washington Football Team v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

I’ve never been much of a stats guy when it comes to the NFL, but there are two that I’ve always been fascinated with because of their connection to championship success. One of those is takeaways by the defense. The other is yards per attempt by the quarterbacks of Super Bowl winners.

I won’t get into takeaways in this article, as I’ve beaten that drum enough over the years (the Steelers are in good shape in that category in 2020). However, I would like to look at yards per attempt. I may not be smart enough to know why that statistic seems to be so important for Super Bowl champs, but there’s no question that it has been over the years.

I discovered that yards per attempt were vital for Super Bowl champions about a decade ago. Thankfully, Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, he of the gunslinger mentality, has always had a healthy career average in that category. In fact, if you subtract his very incomplete 2019 season, Roethlisberger came into the 2020 campaign averaging 7.9 yards per attempt over the course of his legendary career.

If you average out the yards per attempt for the previous 54 Super Bowl winners—7.68 (I compiled these numbers with the help of Pro Football Reference, btw)—that is above the mark.

Roethlisberger is a two-time Super Bowl champion, and, not surprisingly, his combined average per attempt for the 2005 and 2008 seasons was 7.95.

Roethlisberger’s combined postseason yards per attempt during those two championship years was an even healthier 8.2. That lines up quite nicely with some fellow multi-time Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks throughout history who had a penchant for slinging it around, even more, when the stakes were at their highest—including Terry Bradshaw: 9.1; Joe Montana: 8.8; and Troy Aikman: 8.7.

Back to the regular season.

When you look at things historically, only nine Super Bowl champions have had quarterbacks that dipped below 7.0 yards per attempt during the regular season. Again, I don’t know why this is such a vital stat, but there is no question it is.

This brings me to Roethlisberger’s 2020 season. Through 12 games, the old gunslinger is averaging 6.4 yards per passing attempt, or 1.3 yards less than his career mark. For comparison’s sake, Patrick Mahomes averaged 8.3 yards per attempt a season ago while leading the Chiefs to their first Super Bowl title since 1969.

Roethlisberger has adopted a new philosophy for 2020. He’s now less gunslinger and more dinker and dunker. He’s getting rid of the football faster than any quarterback in the NFL, something that has helped keep him from accruing the kinds of bumps and bruises that he took pride in absorbing in his younger days.

Will that have to change if the Steelers are going to have the kind of success they want once the postseason rolls around?

I’ve been on board with Dink and Dunk Ben all season, but why wouldn’t I be? It’s mostly worked through the first 12 games. However, teams have clearly caught on and adapted to Pittsburgh’s short-passing philosophy over the past month or so. Therefore, it might be time for Gunslinger Ben to make a comeback—or at least a cameo now and then.

Thankfully, even if the Steelers remain committed to the short-passing game, the past two decades have shown us that it might not necessarily prevent them from going all the way. Remember those nine Super Bowl champions whose quarterbacks averaged less than seven yards per pass attempt? Six of them came after the turn of the century. And when you examine the playoff numbers of some recent multi-time Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks—including Tom Brady: 6.96; Peyton Manning: 6.35; and Eli Manning: 7.35—they apparently didn’t have to sling it around, even more, when the stakes were at their highest.

In conclusion, Roethlisberger’s average per pass attempt is historically below the mark of quarterbacks of teams who have gone on to win Super Bowls. What’s unclear, however, is if that even matters in the modern era.

Will the Steelers move away from their short passing philosophy before or during the playoffs, or will they keep dancing with what has helped bring them to an 11-1 record?

I guess we’ll soon find out.