The folks at Pro Football Reference (PFR) do a terrific job compiling statistics that a football nerd like me can pour over while searching for information. Their numbers range from the broad, such as yearly stats, to the very specific, such as air-yards-per-attempt for a quarterback or average-depth-of-target for a receiver.
Over the past few days, I’ve been using the site to try to get a better feel for Ben Roethlisberger’s 2020 season. Most of us know the general narrative by now — Roethlisberger returned from elbow surgery to emerge as an MVP candidate while piloting the Steelers to an 11-0 start. But a host of issues (poor line play, a league-worst rushing attack, inaccuracy on the deep ball) conspired to doom the offense down the stretch, leading to an unceremonious playoff exit in the Wild Card round against Cleveland.
When we look at the numbers broadly, Roethlisberger’s season is respectable. He completed 65.6% of his throws for 3,803 yards with 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. It can be easy to forget, given the way things ended, that Roethlisberger did a lot of things well last year. Still, his shortcomings cannot be ignored. By looking at PFR’s advanced numbers, we can really see where Roethlisberger excelled and where he struggled. Here are some takeaways from those numbers and the insight they provide for the Steelers’ offense in 2021.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Steelers offense started games slowly last season. Pittsburgh had just 995 yards of total offense and averaged just 3.86 yards per play in the 1st quarter in 2020. That was far worse than their numbers in the 2nd (1,798/6.15), 3rd (1,231/4.91) and 4th quarters (1,456/5.41). Their 53 1st downs represented their lowest output per quarter as well.
Roethlisberger’s numbers reflected (and were in part responsible for) these struggles. His 1st quarter passer rating was just 72.7. It increased to 104.5, 81.0 and 111.1 in subsequent quarters. Roethlisberger’s completion percentage improved similarly, from 58% in the 1st quarter to 65, 63 and 73% in quarters 2, 3 and 4.
Why did Roethlisberger, in particular, and the offense, in general, start so slowly last season? Former coordinator Randy Fichtner certainly played a role. Fichtner’s opening scripts were often unimaginative. They frequently operated from the same personnel grouping and took one of two forms: either a run-run-pass sequence that often left the Steelers in 3rd and long; or multiple consecutive passes, usually short throws from the shotgun, that relied on Roethlisberger to be decisive and accurate. Neither proved to be particularly effective.
Roethlisberger hasn’t always been a slow starter. In fact, his career completion percentage is higher in the 1st quarter (65.5) than any other quarter while his 1st quarter passer rating (94.9) improves only in the 2nd quarter (96.5). It’s possible his slow starts in 2020 were a byproduct of the elbow surgery that ended his 2019 season prematurely. The mental rust likely took a toll as Roethlisberger struggled to diagnose defenses early in games. Hopefully, with a full season under his belt, he will acclimate quicker in 2021.
The physical part may be trickier. At age 39, he’s unlikely to get loose quickly. This is where new coordinator Matt Canada will play an important role. In Fichtner’s offense, so much of the passing game relied on Roethlisberger to read coverages and find open receivers. The Steelers ran a lot of timing routes which demanded throws to be accurate and released quickly. While many of these were short throws that didn’t appear difficult, they were also throws into tight windows. Fichtner rarely helped Roethlisberger by scheming players open to reduce his responsibility. While that may have been Roethlisberger’s preference, Canada would be wise to script some easy throws to get him going early in games.
Using some play-action out of the Pistol formation, as I wrote about last week, is one good way to do this. Simple swings, check-downs and outlets to the running back is another. 1st round draft pick Najee Harris will be great for Roethlisberger in this regard. If Canada can script plays that have intended targets, he can reduce the mental and physical burden Roethlisberger must bear while he warms up and finds his rhythm.
The no-huddle is another subject we’ve written about from time to time. There is a general sense Roethlisberger does well with this tempo and the Steelers should use it more often. The numbers support this line of thinking.
In 2020, Roethlisberger went an astounding 50-63 (79.3%) from the no-huddle for 477 yards with 3 touchdowns, 0 interceptions and a passer rating of 114.1. He averaged 7.6 yards per attempt, which was better than his season average of 6.2, and his air yards per attempt was 8.7, up from 6.6 overall. This meant he was pushing the ball deeper down the field while using the no-huddle.
At times, numbers from the no-huddle can be inflated. This is because it’s often used when a team is trailing and a defense is in a soft two-high shell protecting against the deep pass. While that was sometimes the case with Roethlisberger, he remained effective when the Steelers used it while games were close. Case in point: in Pittsburgh’s 28-24 come-from-behind win over Indianapolis that clinched the AFC North last December, the Steelers used the no-huddle to climb back from a 24-7 deficit. At 24-21, they stayed no-huddle as Roethlisberger led a 10 play, 84 yard drive by completing 6-8 passes for 69 yards, including the go-ahead score on a 25 yard dagger to Juju Smith-Schuster.
It’s impractical to suggest the Steelers should line up in the no-huddle all of the time. Most teams cannot operate their entire offense at this tempo, and with the shifts, motions and substitutions I expect from Canada, it will be harder still. However, with the success Roethlisberger has had with it, Pittsburgh would be wise to develop a more comprehensive no-huddle package and to use it more frequently. It could be a great way to keep defenses off balance and allow Roethlisberger some of the control he seems to desire.
While the Steelers led the league with 656 pass attempts in 2020, their passing efficiency was mediocre.
On 1st down, Pittsburgh ranked 21st in passing success at 52%. They were only slightly better on 2nd down, finishing 20th at 48%. They did, however, finish tied for 5th on 3rd downs with a 42% success rate. This is interesting, as it suggests the Steelers were good at sustaining drives with the passing game. Overall, Roethlisberger finished 13th in the league with a 3rd down passing conversion rate of just under 43%.
The 1st and 2nd down passing efficiency numbers likely suffered because of Pittsburgh’s lack of commitment to a play-action passing game. These are high-frequency run downs where a defense can be vulnerable to play-action because of their aggressiveness. With little to no deception in the passing game, Pittsburgh rarely put defenses out of position, relying instead on Roethlisberger to solve them. Some deception in the passing game, especially on early downs, would be helpful.
As for 3rd downs, their ability to move the sticks with the pass is encouraging given the limitations in the offense elsewhere. Their woeful rushing attack often put the Steelers in long yardage situations, which in turn made things harder on the passing game. Still, Roethlisberger produced conversations from those situations fairly often. With so much attention given to improving the run game this off-season, the Steelers may find themselves in more manageable 3rd down situations, which should benefit Roethlisberger.
11 vs. 12 Personnel
The Steelers operated overwhelmingly from 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR) last season. They used that grouping 75% of the time, which was second to only Green Bay in frequency. Roethlisberger’s passer rating from 11 personnel was just 87.6, however, which was 22nd in the league behind players such as Gardner Minshew and Daniel Jones.
By contrast, Roethlisberger’s rating from 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR) was 107.8, good for 14th. The Steelers used 12 personnel on just 12% of their snaps but the sample size is large enough (114 plays) to suggest that, when he had a second tight end on the field, Roethlisberger was a more efficient passer.
While Eric Ebron has received a decent amount of criticism for his dropped passes and poor blocking, he did produce 56 catches for 558 yards and 5 touchdowns last season, numbers the Steelers haven’t seen from a tight end since Heath Miller. Ebron is a big target at 6’5-253 and seemed to have a solid rapport with Roethlisberger. Unfortunately, his counterpart at tight end, Vance McDonald, clearly regressed in 2020. McDonald lost a step in terms of his athleticism and his power at the point of attack declined as well. It’s likely the Steelers operated so often from 11 personnel because they believed a third receiver, whether it be Chase Claypool or James Washington, gave them better production than pairing McDonald with Ebron.
McDonald has since retired and been replaced on the roster by 2nd round pick Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth is another big target at 6’5-258 and, while he will need to hit the weight room to handle inline NFL blocking duties, is a willing blocker who will be an upgrade over McDonald. Freiermuth is also a better athlete with solid hands. The combination of Freiermuth and Ebron is much more attractive than was Ebron and McDonald last season. Coupled with the fact that Canada loves tight ends, and that Roethlisberger was a good 12 personnel passer last season, it’s likely we will see more two tight end sets in 2021.
So, from the numbers, here are some conclusions we can draw:
First, Matt Canada should script easy throws for Ben Roethlisberger early in games to increase his 1st quarter efficiency. Utilizing Najee Harris as a receiver is a good way to do this.
Second, given that Roethlisberger excels in the no-huddle, more frequent use of that package would be wise. The Steelers cannot operate from it extensively but could use it at strategic moments to change the tempo of a contest or put a defense on its heels.
Third, the Steelers can improve their situational passing in several ways. More play-action would increase their efficiency on 1st and 2nd downs and a better run game would keep the Steelers out of 3rd and long, where passing conversions are difficult.
And finally, the Steelers should make more use of 12 personnel, where Roethlisberger showed last season he can be effective. Adding Pat Freiermuth from the draft should help in this regard.