As the Pittsburgh Steelers approach 2021 training camp, we are going to spend the next several weeks breaking down various aspects of the Steelers passing game in 2020. First up this week is looking at passes thrown to the right of the offensive formation and the Steelers’ tendencies they will hopefully overcome in 2021.
Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.
Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.
Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Stats Line:
Before I get started, I’m going to give a bit of a disclaimer which I will probably include in each of these articles. Although they don’t explicitly say it, I’m assuming the cut off for whether it is a short pass or a long pass is the receiver being 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. If this is not the case, I will gladly take some correction. The two sources for information in regards to the stats included are coming from NFLGSIS and Pro Football Reference. Their stats are extremely close as it is sometimes a fine line between whether or not the pass was thrown to the right or to the middle of the field. For this first exercise, we are looking at the statistics and the film of passes thrown to the right side of the formation as both short and long passes. This also is only including regular-season data.
In looking at every pass going to either the left, middle, or right, how the Steelers viewed the field varied greatly based on the depth of passes. The Steelers threw 57 passes to the deep right in 2020 which ranked them first in the NFL, but their completion percentage of 24.56% and average gain of 6.84 yards per pass had them ranked 31st in the league in each category.
The Steelers scored six touchdowns when throwing the ball to the deep right, with two of them coming against the Cleveland Browns. As for who caught these passes, there were three different receivers who caught two each in Chase Claypool, Diontae Johnson, and James Washington. Five of the touchdown passes were thrown by Ben Roethlisberger while a 28 yard touchdown to Chase Claypool was thrown by Mason Rudolph in Week 17. The longest gain on any pass to the right was yet another pass by Mason Rudolph which wnet for 41 yards to Diontae Johnson. In all, Mason Rudolph was two for five on long passes to the right with 69 yards and one touchdown and no interceptions while Ben Roethlisberger was 12 for 52 for 321 yards and five touchdowns with three interceptions.
No receiver caught more than 29% of their deep passes to the right with the exception of Eric Ebron who caught one pass on one target for 24 yards. With only 14 completions, the Steelers were just shy of scoring a touchdown on half of their completions of deep passes to the right.
When it came to short passes on the right side of the formation, the Steelers threw 167 passes which ranked 21st in the NFL. In the short passing category, the Steelers threw fewer passes to the right then they did either the middle or the left while throwing deep passes to the right was by far the most attempted option. As for the Steelers completion percentage on passes to the short right, they completed 67.66% of the passes ranking 22nd in the NFL. Unfortunately, they only gained 4.51 yards per attempt which was dead last in the league.
The Steelers scored seven touchdowns on passes to the short right side of the formation. Of the touchdowns, two apiece went to Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, while tight end Eric Ebron caught one touchdown. Ignoring the one past attempt to tackle Jerald Hawkins, every Steelers receiver caught at least 60% of the balls thrown to them short on the right side of the formation with the exception of Eric Ebron who caught nine of his 19 targets.
As for the quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger completed 109 of 157 passes to the short right for a completion percentage of 69.4% with 723 yards, seven touchdowns, and no interceptions. Mason Rudolph completed 5 of 10 passes for a 50% completion rate and 32 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions.
When passing to the right side of the formation, the Steelers did not fare well in gaining yardage compared to the rest of the NFL. Was there something that just simply wasn’t working? Let’s check the film.
The Film Line:
There’s a lot to cover in explaining Dave’s stats above. Let’s jump right in.
Week 2, 4th quarter, 7:43. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.
Diontae Johnson is the farthest receiver to the right. Notice his route is more vertical and the slot receiver heads into the middle, that’s a serious trend with football in general when you put two receivers on the same side, but it was almost constant under Randy Fichtner. Also notice an early trend from the Steelers passing game, a great pocket giving Ben Roethlisberger time to throw cleanly but the ball isn’t on target. Roethlisberger wasn’t the most accurate early on in the season. This is a 13 yard route, so it actually counts as a short pass.
Week 3, first quarter, 12:38. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver to the top of the screen.
Here it’s just JuJu Smith-Schuster on the right side, but he still is going deep, and the underneath threat is provided by the receivers from the left side coming across the formation. Again a clean pocket, and an off-target throw.
Week 6, second quarter, 5:49. James Washington is the receiver to the right side of the screen.
As the Steelers hit the middle of the season Roethlisberger started showing flashes of his usual talent, the pump fake selling the double move and the ability to step up in the pocket leads to a beautiful touchdown pass for James Washington. As Roethlisberger gained comfort and started finding his rhythm, another trend emerged.
Week 13, first quarter, 15:00. James Washington is the receiver to the right side of the screen.
Ben Roethlisberger takes roughly the same time he took on all the previous clips, but he gets hit hard for it as the center of the line fails to protect him. There are examples before Week 13, but this play always stood out to me because it was the first play of the game, and it kind of set the tone for the three-game losing streak that followed. With the quarterback facing pressure up the middle and the run game missing in action Roethlisberger relied more and more on short, quick passes. If you look at those routes on the clips above, you can see how that would quickly become predictable.
Week 15, first quarter, 0:55. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the receiver to the left side of the screen.
Sorry for that, but the real culmination of the loss of confidence in the offensive line is right there. Ben’s internal clock gives him time for a quick look to the left before ditching the ball to Smith-Schuster. The deep route, drag route and mid-level route from trips is a staple move in football, but Randy Fichtner took it to new levels of consistency, and Roethlisberger was dumping it underneath a lot just to get rid of the ball at this point in the season.
I can’t end on that play.
Week 16, third quarter, 3:23. Diontae Johnson is the receiver to the right side of the screen.
In Week 16 the interior of the Steelers line was Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro and Kevin Dotson, the only game where all three of those players started. It took the entire first half for Ben Roethlisberger to realize he had a real pocket again, and the second half comeback was fueled by his ability to step up and throw downfield cleanly.
The right side of the field is usually the short side (boundary side) of the field, most players are right handed, so it makes sense to run to your players’ dominant hand and to the defenses non-dominant hand. It’s more pronounced at lower levels, but it holds true in the NFL as well. The Steelers like putting the slot receiver on the boundary side, giving the field (wider) side receiver a lot of space to work with. With more bodies to the right, the deep routes get thrown more frequently, and in 2020, Ben Roethlisberger threw a lot of those deep shots to the right. With a lack of faith in his arm early on, and the line later, those deep shots were low percentage, low risk throws that occasionally paid off in a big way.
The point right now might be a little bit premature as it might take looking at the Steelers passing game on all three parts of the field to really understand. But passes to the right are the ones where the Steeler struggled the most in 2020. Their completion percentage was the least by far on deep passes and was also the least on their short passes. The fact the Steelers looked to the right more in the deep game and less than the short game may raise more questions than anything else. Keep in mind “more” is 57 deep passes while “less” was 167 short passes.
Perhaps if a quarterback is looking left to right through their progression, it makes sense that the players may be farther down field by the time they get to that side of the field. Or it could simply just be the scheme where deep shots are taken more to that side of the field.
The most important points drawn from the film portion of this particular vertex is that Ben Roethlisberger had a higher chance of completing his deep passes when he was both given more time to throw, and confidence in getting enough time to throw. We’ll see if this holds up as we look at the left and the middle of the field in the coming weeks.