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Did the Steelers have a “check down” philosophy when it came to their 2019 passing game?

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With young, back-up quarterbacks under center for most of 2019, the plan for the passing game appeared to be conservative this past season

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

It felt as if Steelers’ fans didn’t know exactly how to handle the quarterback situation that was thrust upon the team during the 2019 season. While some fans understood neither quarterback who saw action was going to be Ben Roethlisberger, some felt anything shy of Roethlisberger‘s production was utter failure. Opinions fell across the entire spectrum when it came to both Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.

One particular comment I saw repeatedly among Steelers’ fans was both quarterbacks only ran a “check-down” offense. Was this the case in 2019, and is there any sufficient data to support the claim?

First of all, classifying a throw as a “check down” would take visually breaking down each pass and knowing what the specific play call was in order to determine if a safer and shorter route than intended was ultimately where the pass was directed. Since we, as fans, are not privy to the information as to which receiver was supposed to be the first read of the quarterback, we will have to rely on other data in order to see if this claim could be true.

One particular statistic which could give a bit of an indication is average Completed Air Yards (CAY). In essence, CAY is the vertical measurement of how many yards through the air the ball traveled until the moment it is caught in relation to the line of scrimmage. In other words, it is the other factor along with Yards After the Catch (YAC) which determines the length of a pass play. For example, if the ball is snapped at the 20 yard line and the receiver catches the ball at the 35 yard line before being tackled at the 45 yard line, the 25 yards gained is broken into 15 Completed Air Yards and 10 Yards After the Catch.

In looking at CAY for the season, it is a good measurement with how far down the field a quarterback is throwing ball. Thanks to Next Gen Stats, we have access to the last four seasons of qualifying quarterbacks and their CAY. The results are by player and not by team, and quarterbacks must have attempted at least 128 passes on the season. In 2019, there were 39 quarterbacks who qualified according to Next Gen Stats.

So how did the two young Steelers’ quarterbacks fare in CAY for 2019? They were tied for the very lowest in the NFL. With a 4.5 average Completed Air Yards, both Rudolph and Hodges finished behind Teddy Bridgewater and Drew Lock with 4.6 average yards. The only other quarterback in the league who was under 5.0 CAY was Derek Carr (4.9).

Does this statistics mean the Steelers were checking the ball down every play? Not necessarily. Perhaps the play calls were for shorter passes. Without getting the actual play call, it is merely speculation.

Another interesting statistic from Next Gen Stats which could help to classify the mentality of quarterbacks is Aggressiveness (AGG%). Aggressiveness is defined as the percentage of throws where a defender was within 1 yard of the receiver. In other words, was the quarterback willing to throw into a tight window?

How did the Steelers quarterbacks in 2019 fare in Aggressiveness? Devlin Hodges was last in the NFL with 10.6% which was 1.1% lower than the next closest quarterback. As for Mason Rudolph, his aggressiveness was 18% which ranked 11th in the NFL.

It is understandable this statistic could mean several things. If receivers are not getting open, quarterbacks have no choice but to be aggressive even on short throws. But if receivers are getting open, it makes the decision easier for the quarterback to throw the ball in their direction. Just to give some perspective, Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes was tied for 36th in the NFL in aggressiveness with 12.2%.

All these numbers are great, but do they show the quarterbacks had a “check down” philosophy in 2019? Believe it or not, the numbers are not that much different than Ben Roethlisberger in 2018. Out of 40 qualifying quarterbacks, Rothlisberger ranked 35th in CAY with 4.8 yards. Just for fun, his aggressiveness was 16.9% which was tied for 14th in the NFL.

Surprisingly, the drop off to the young quarterbacks in 2019 was not as significant as we may have believed. Where the significant drop off came was from 2017 to 2018 when Ben Roethlisberger ranked 18th out of 41 quarterbacks with 5.9 CAY. In 2016, his CAY was even higher at 6.4 yards but ultimately ranked 19th out of 39 quarterbacks.

So if you’re looking strictly at the numbers, there was not a big drop off in completing passes down the field from 2018 to 2019 as the biggest change came from 2017 to 2018. So what changed over those seasons? Other than the availability of Le’Veon Bell, the biggest change to the Steelers offense was new offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner.

So, the 2019 passing game did have a slightly smaller average Completed Air Yards from the previous year. Perhaps the biggest factor in an expanded short passing game for the Steelers was not as much the quarterback as it was the play calling.

How much does a check down passing game really matter? Honestly, effectiveness is the most important thing. A short passing game can be very effective as long as it’s sustained. Most importantly, the passing game needs to help the offense score points and achieve victories. Whether it’s through one deep ball or 15 short passes, as long as the passing game is effective either philosophy can be successful. But if you’re not a fan of a short passing offense, you might need to brace yourself for 2020 as the return of Ben Roethlisberger may not bring the deep passing game from years ago.