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Who are the best deep threats of Ben Roethlisberger’s career?

Looking at the numbers for the Steelers best deep targets since 2006.

Cincinnati Bengals v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

I wanted to look at Ben Roethlisberger throwing deep this week, and if you missed it, you can click the link below to read it.

While I was processing those numbers it was pretty easy to also compile the data from the receivers side. Sadly this can’t contain Ben Roethlisberger’s first two seasons, as PFR doesn’t have pass distance data for those seasons. That means Plaxico Burress doesn’t show up at all, and Hines Ward loses two of his best seasons with Ben Roethlisberger. While that is disappointing, there is still a lot of value in looking at the data.

It is important to note that PFR counts a deep pass as one that travels 15 yards or more downfield in the air, so this data is based on that criteria.

First off, Antonio Brown dominates the chart. He is head and shoulders above every other receiver in any counting stats. As I talked about in the prior article, most of the top years for Ben Roethlisberger’s deep passing were the years Antonio Brown had 1000 yards or more receiving. The connection Brown and Roethlisberger had made everything else the offense did easier, and that included deep passes. While it is easy to see how Antonio Brown drove the volume of deep passes from his quarterback, he wasn’t the most efficient or dangerous deep threat, he created volume, which is important, but others did more per deep target than Brown.

Before I go on, I want to be clear that Antonio Brown is the best receiver and best target Ben Roethlisberger had, on short or deep routes. But I’m not going to limit this article to that. So let’s look at efficiency and threat beyond Antonio Brown’s absolute domination of the total stats.

Mike Wallace was an enormous threat as a deep ball receiver, and he did all of his damage before Antonio Brown broke out as a star receiver. His catch rate falls just outside of the top 10, but his yards per catch rank fifth, and he has by far the highest catch rate of the top 6 receivers for yards per catch. Those six make up the group most people would think of when discussing true deep threat receivers Ben Roethlisberger has thrown to. Wallace stands out for his high yards per catch, his catch rate on those low percentage balls and his ridiculous 14.6% TD rate. That’s roughly 1 TD for every 7 passes thrown his way, and with a 14.26 yards per target mark, it is hard to top his production. It is pretty easy to see that Mike Wallace was the most dangerous deep threat Ben Roethlisberger ever had.

Take a look at the last column, yards per catch. It’s surprising to me to see how similar Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey’s stats ended up. Heyward-Bey was a special teams player who received occasional targets each season, while Sammie Coates had a 5 game stretch as one of the statistically greatest deep threat receivers of all time, but only caught one deep target outside of those 5 games (and that was with the Browns). If you look at Coates’ ridiculous yards per catch and consider that all of those catches and yards are from the first 14 times Ben Roethlisberger threw deep to Coates (almost 46 yards per catch at a 50% catch rate makes for an insane 22.9 yards per target), you may remember why we were all excited about him for that short stretch.

After a dominant 139 yard, 2 TD on 11 target performance in a game against the New York Jets in Week 5 of 2016, he would never catch another deep pass from Ben Roethlisberger again, catching only 2 of the last 18 passes Roethlisberger threw his way for 14 yards, less than one yard per target. What a crazy rise and fall his career had.

Martavis Bryant ranks pretty well on this list, third in yards per catch, 4th in touchdowns and a respectable 8th in yards per target. Chase Claypool is a good comparison for Martavis Bryant, they are pretty close in most of the stats, and it will be interesting to see how Chase Claypool fares when Ben Roethlisberger retires. Martavis Bryant has an edge in numbers, but he only played during the elevated deep ball numbers of the Antonio Brown era, and as my previous article showed, Ben Roethlisberger doesn’t throw deep as often or as well as he did before his injury. In an extremely short sample size of Claypool playing with Mason Rudolph, his numbers were better than with Ben Roethlisberger. Far too small a sample size to draw any conclusions from, but it does point to the possibility that Martavis Bryant’s situation with a younger Roethlisberger and spending most of his snaps across from Antonio Brown are the reason he looks like a better deep receiver than Chase Claypool.

The player Claypool lines up across from most of the time is Diontae Johnson, who ranks very poorly on this chart. His 30.6% catch rate is closer to Sammie Coates than Chase Claypool, and his 30.93 yards per reception is in line with Ladarius Green, Nate Washington and Markus Wheaton, all who had significantly higher catch rates than Johnson. Only Emmanuel Sanders, Xavier Grimble and Cedrick Wilson have both a lower catch rate and a lower yards per catch than Diontae Johnson on this list.

Diontae Johnson is a fantastic change of direction receiver with great releases off the line. He’s fantastic on short routes and a threat to turn a short pass into a bigger gain. The frequent comparisons to Antonio Brown are based on that. When you look at downfield passing though, the comparison comes to a screeching halt. While Antonio Brown was extremely dangerous as a downfield target, Diontae Johnson compares more closely to Eli Rogers than Antonio Brown on downfield passes.

If you read my previous article and saw the correlation between percentage of total passing yards that come from deep passes and the Steelers winning games both in the regular season and postseason, you can join me in finally making sense of something I’ve noticed and spoke about before. The Steelers offense is a worse offense when Diontae Johnson is the focus of the passing game. He is a receiver that still produces when things go bad, and that is a good thing, but when he is the focal point of the passing game (read dominates in percentage of targets) the Steelers aren’t scoring points and win less.

That makes sense when you look at his lack of deep ball production and the very strong correlation between deep passing being a major part of the offense and the Steelers being a good team. Deep passes to Diontae Johnson aren’t as productive, so they aren’t as conducive to winning. Diontae Johnson is a fantastic complimentary receiver, but if he is the Steelers #1 receiver, the Steelers offense isn’t going to be a very good one.

There are two more receivers I want to cover. First off is Hines Ward.

Hines Ward turned 30 in 2006, this chart covers only his age 30 season onward, and yet he is second in targets, has a catch rate higher than Antonio Brown and a higher yards per target than Antonio Brown. Hines Ward gets downgraded by most people because he spent his prime years catching passes from Kordell Stewart, Tommy Maddox, Kent Graham, etc. Once Ben Roethlisberger started throwing the ball more, Hines Ward was already 30 years old and it wasn’t a low mileage 30, Hines Ward wasn’t avoiding hits to keep his body in top condition. And yet from age 30-35 he was still one of the more reliable deep targets Ben Roethlisberger threw to. Imagine where his numbers would be if he had been ten years younger and joined the Steelers in 2008.

If you haven’t noticed my last receiver’s name and numbers, sort the chart by yards per target and look who sits on top. JuJu Smith-Schuster has a ridiculous 50% deep ball catch rate and a really good 33.48 yards per catch. His yards per catch are right around Chase Claypool’s, 1.5 yards lower than Mike Wallace’s and yet he has a 50% catch rate. His TD rate of 12% ranks highly as well.

One of the major problems of the 2020 and 2021 season are the sharp drop off in downfield throws to JuJu Smith-Schuster. In 2020 Smith-Schuster was targeted 12 times on passes thrown 15+ yards downfield. That is a monumental drop from his 2018 count of 34 deep targets. Smith-Schuster caught 58.3% of his deep targets in the 2020 season, and led the Steelers in yards per deep target, yet ranked 5th in targets downfield while leading all Steeler receivers in snaps. In 2021 Smith-Schuster was targeted with 3 deep passes in 5 games, on pace for right around 10 deep targets in a season.

There are plenty of problems with the Steelers offense, but one of the biggest is the lack of deep throws, and the effectiveness of those throws. It doesn’t help that in 2020 the Steelers threw twice as many deep passes to one of the least effective deep targets of the Ben Roethlisberger era in Diontae Johnson as they threw to JuJu Smith-Schuster, who remains one of the most reliable and effective downfield targets Ben Roethlisberger has ever thrown to.

Imagine if the Steelers just stopped throwing the ball downfield to Hines Ward as he got older, and instead threw more to Cedrick Wilson. That’s roughly equivalent to what the Steelers have done by putting Smith-Schuster in a short-route only role while throwing more to Diontae Johnson downfield.