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Ben Roethlisberger is the best in the business in short yardage situations

Should Ben Roethlisberger have thrown deep to Anthony McFarland on 4th and 1 against Washington? No, but also, yes.

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

With 4:57 left to play in a tie ball game, the Steelers were at Washington’s 28 yard line. They faced a 4th down with 1 to gain, and Mike Tomlin opted to go for that yard. Put the ball in the hand of your Hall of Fame quarterback, or on the foot of a lily green kicker? When you see the data below, you won’t blame him.

Roethlisberger took that 4th down snap, needing 1 yard, and threw a deep ball to rookie Anthony McFarland. The throw was wide of the route, and McFarland twisted awkwardly to recover but could not pull it down.

Turnover on downs.

Ben did know they only needed 1 yard, right?

Should Ben have thrown a quick short yard pass to pick up the first? The probability of converting a first down with a shorter pass is obviously higher. Turns out that’s even more true for Big Ben.

Below is a chart examining the 1st down success rate of quarterbacks who pass on 3rd or 4th down with 1 yard to go. Included are some of the top quarterbacks who’ve played in last decade.

All quarterbacks shown have thrown at least 45 such passes
Data sourced from 10 years of NFL play-by-play data

Roethlisberger converted 74 percent of 3rd or 4th downs with 1 yard to go in which he threw a pass over this time frame. This leads an impressive cast of quarterbacks that, for the most part, perform better than the rest of the field.

This is because Ben is not really the risk-taker he is suspected of being. He did take the risk with McFarland, but he actually takes that risk less often than most quarterbacks. Here is chart showing how often quarterbacks throw the ball 10 yards or more downfield in 3rd or 4th and 1 situations.

Aaron Rodgers is the clear gunslinger of this group, going deep on 40 percent of these short yardage situations. Roethlisberger is actually below the rest of the quarterback field in terms of these attempts, and only marginally more of a risk-taker than the best quarterbacks. It’s worth noting that most of the good quarterbacks throw fewer long balls in short yardage compared to the majority of quarterbacks.

Ben is above average on these longer attempts but doesn’t stand out among the best.

Roethlisberger converts 53 percent of attempts like the one he threw to McFarland. A coin flip isn’t what the Steelers needed on that 4th and 1 against Washington, but it’s what Ben opted to do.

A supposed benefit of throwing long in these short yardage situations is the element of surprise. Defenses will be playing the short field and will leave space behind the front. If that idea is true, there is should be a pretty sizeable benefit in terms of yards per attempt. While Ben is better than average in this case, again he doesn’t stand out.

For context, the average yards per attempt gained on any pass thrown 10 or more air yards is 10.3. This means most quarterbacks get no more efficient by going deep when the defense is defending the short field. The great quarterbacks do take advantage of this situation. Ben also is better than average, but these passes are not necessarily his strength.

The reason Ben is so successful on 3rd or 4th and 1 conversions is his ability to convert the short pass.

Short = 9 or less air yards; Long = 10 or more air yards

Ben is 26 percent more likely to convert a first down when throwing shorter than 10 yards down the field. Only Russell Wilson has a bigger conversion difference. It’s interesting that quarterbacks like Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Philip Rivers and Eli Manning all had similar conversion rates no matter the depth of the pass.

Ben stands out in 3rd or 4th and 1 situations when he throws it short.

Roethlisberger converts 79 percent of first downs when needing 1 yard and throwing it for the sticks. He is literally world class in these situations. Some of the greats even struggle in this moment when compared to even average quarterbacks. But here, Ben excels.

Tomlin was right to give Ben the ball with the game on the line. Ben didn’t take a bad risk when he threw it deep. He’s better than most throwing that ball. The problem is he is absolutely the best throwing it shorter.

The Steelers will no doubt find themselves in more of these crucial short yardage situations this season as the stakes increase. Hopefully Ben plays to his strength and focuses on moving the chains.