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Is Ben Roethlisberger throwing deep less?

Looking at the numbers to evaluate Ben Roethlisberger’s deep passing.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Ben Roethlisberger was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2004. He would take over the starting role that season and win his first 14 starts. His playstyle at that time could be described as run around until someone got open deep, then throw the ball. From the beginning of his career, deep passes were a huge part of Ben Roethlisberger’s game. It shows up well in his statistics, as the years where he had the best stats were years when he had a great deep threat, players like Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant.

After his injury in 2019, plenty of analysts have questioned or criticized Ben Roethlisberger’s arm strength, and while there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to show he can still throw the ball downfield, I wanted to look at the numbers to see how much his approach has changed.

Let’s start by looking at his deep passing numbers by year. (I’m using Pro-Football Reference numbers, so a deep pass is counted as one that travels 15 yards downfield before reaching the targeted receiver.

First off, looking at the deep pass attempts per game, outside of Roethlisberger’s incredibly short 2019 season, his 5.58 deep passes per game so far in 2021 is the lowest of his career. If you consider that in 2019 he played exactly 1.5 games and recalculate, that would be 7.33 deep attempts, much more in line with his 2018 numbers than his 2020 or 2021 numbers.

It’s clear that Ben Roethlisberger is throwing deep less than he did before his injury in 2019, but there are some other interesting numbers on the chart that I want to briefly cover. Ben Roethlisberger’s top four seasons in deep pass attempts all were during the Todd Haley years, a time fans frequently criticize for the high rate of screen passes and dump offs.

Those four years also happen to be the years Antonio Brown was dominating, and any deep threat on the other side of the field had a favorable situation. The top seven seasons for Ben Roethlisberger deep attempts happen to line up with Antonio Brown’s seven 1000+ yard seasons. I don’t think that is a coincidence.

If you look at attempts per game though, you can see a drop off in 2018 when Randy Fichtner took over the offense. In attempts per game the 2009 and 2010 seasons move up the list, giving the Bruce Arians and early Mike Wallace offense some love.

The 2010 season when Ben Roethlisberger missed four games ranks 4th in deep attempts per game, and it boasts Ben Roethlisberger’s best completion percentage and his lowest interception percentage on deep passes for his career. It is also one of the years he led the Steelers to the Super Bowl. Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown both correlate to Ben Roethlisberger having success throwing the ball downfield, and the struggles of the 2012 season show up in these rankings with the fewest deep ball attempts of that time period, despite having both Antonio Brown and Mike Wallace on the team.

One interesting fact is found in the yards per completion numbers, where three of the top 4 years are from the post-Todd Haley offenses of 2018, 2019, and 2021 seasons. The 2019 season can be discounted as one completion for 45 yards is hardly enough data to draw conclusions from, but the presence of the 2018 and 2021 seasons stand out.

The 2018 and 2021 seasons both have lower completion percentages but they have high yards per catch. That is usually a sign of an offense that is pushing the ball far down the field. With PFR using 15 yards as the cutoff for deep passes there is room for multiple levels of deep passes to fit in. A 15 yard out route or a deep crossing route that is 15-20 yards deep to the middle of the field are going to give you different numbers than an offense that throws short a lot, and compliments those throws with bombs down the sideline.

Randy Fichtner’s offense focused more on short routes, and the long routes were more of what people think about with deep shots, not the mid-deep offense that Todd Haley ran that was more frequently attacking 15-25 yards downfield.

Some of these seasons are also skewed because of more passing overall, and by the number of games Ben Roethlisberger missed. To account for that check out the next table, where each deep ball stat listed is expressed as a percentage of Ben Roethlisberger’s total passing stats.

For example, in 2010, 20% of Ben Roethlisberger’s completions were 15 yards downfield or further, while in 2018 it dropped to 10% of his total completions.

This is a great way to look at how much of Ben Roethlisberger’s passing attack were deep passes. The top 2 years in terms of deep pass focus are 2010 and 2015, the second years of Mike Wallace and Martavis Bryant’s respective careers. The 2010 season stands out with that impressive 20% of pass completions coming 15 yards downfield. That kind of vertical threat on a defense creates room to run. 2010 was Rashard Mendenhall’s most productive season with 1273 yards and 13 TDs rushing. In 2015 Le’Veon Bell only played 6 games but between he and DeAngelo Williams they rushed for 1463 yards and 14 TDs. Le’Veon Bell’s standout 2016, with 1884 total yards also came with a high focus on throwing downfield.

This chart also points out another key trend. Since Todd Haley left following the 2017 season, Ben Roethlisberger has thrown deep less. The last four seasons join the 2012 season as the only years since 2006 that Ben Roethlisberger has thrown deep on less than 20% of his pass attempts. When Ben Roethlisberger returned from injury in 2020 the percentage dropped to 16.3% and then to 14.7% this season. This year is the first time Ben Roethlisberger’s deep passing yardage has been less than 1/4th his total yardage, outside of the 6 quarters he played hurt in 2019.

If you sort that chart by percentage of yards, and look at the bottom 7 years, you will see 2018, 2012, 2013, 2006, 2020, 2021 and 2019. If you look up the records for those Steeler seasons you will find all four 8-8 seasons, a 9-7 season, the current 6-6-1 season and the 12-4 2020 season that ended horribly.

Every playoff win and all but one 10+ win season are represented in the top 8 seasons in that list. The percentage of passing yards that come from deep passes by Ben Roethlisberger has a very strong correlation to wins and playoff success.

Now correlation isn’t causation, but this isn’t like correlations between running the ball and winning, which is largely caused by teams running the ball more when they are winning. The Pittsburgh Steelers are a better team when Ben Roethlisberger is throwing the ball downfield.

And as we can see from these numbers, he is throwing deep less than he has at any point in his career.