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What was the biggest problem with the Steelers 2021 passing game?

Of all the issues, which one is the most important to fix?

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers threw 664 passes in 2021-2022, the 4th most in the NFL. Those 664 attempts netted 3,778 yards. The Dallas Cowboys threw 647 passes for 4,800 yards, 17 fewer passes for over 1,000 more yards. The San Francisco 49ers threw the football 514 times, the 4th fewest in the NFL and threw for 4,221 yards...443 more than the Steelers while throwing 150 fewer passes.

The Steelers ranked 27th in yards per pass attempt, a combination of ranking 22nd in completion percentage and 32nd, dead last in yards per completion at 9.5. Going farther into it, the Steelers average pass attempt traveled only 6.7 yards past the line of scrimmage, only the Lions with quarterback Jared Goff had a lower intended air yards per pass attempt.

Before 2018 Ben Roethlisberger led the Steelers to Top 10 finishes in yards per completion almost every year. In 2018 the Steelers dropped to 15th, right in the middle and from 2019 to 2021 the Steelers ranked 31st, 32nd, and 32nd. Since Ben Roethlisberger returned to the Steelers in 2020, the Steelers have been dead last in yards per completion.

But that’s not the only change from 2017 to 2020. In 2018 Randy Fichtner took over the offense, and the yards per completion declined. In 2019 Ben was out, in 2020 Matt Canada joined the coaching staff and in 2021 he took over the offense.

So while Ben Roethlisberger’s return lined up with the Steelers hitting rock bottom, so did the arrival of Matt Canada. Also 2018 was the last season with Antonio Brown playing as a Steeler. I don’t need to go over his production or the change in production from JuJu Smith-Schuster with Antonio Brown no longer drawing the majority of the coverage. 2018 was also Mike Munchak’s last season coaching the Steelers offensive line, and the pass blocking has been worse since. Of course age and injuries to the offensive line didn’t help the protection.

Perhaps you can see the problem with diagnosing the major problem with the Steelers passing game. There are so many factors, and likely they all play a part in the Steelers decline from 9th in yards per completion, 6th in completion percentage and 8th in yards per attempt in 2017 to 32nd in yards per completion, 22nd in completion percentage and 30th in yards per attempt in 2021.

So many potential issues mean the Steelers are unlikely to be able to fix all of them in one offseason. The question becomes, which one is the biggest problem, which one(s) should the Steelers focus the most energy on.

Let’s go through each of the main suspects and briefly make the case for that being the major issue:

1 - The Quarterback

Ben Roethlisberger's lost 2019 season marks a clear line between solid but not great numbers in 2018 and terrible numbers in 2020. It’s pretty obvious he’s the difference, but there’s supporting evidence from the rest of the NFL. Remember that above I mentioned Detroit being the only team worse than the Steelers in intended air yards per attempt (how far past the line of scrimmage each throw went on average before being caught/falling incomplete)? Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford switched teams between 2020 and 2021, and while in 2021 Detroit was last and the LA Rams ranked 4th highest, in 2020 with Stafford on the Lions they ranked 8th, and the Jared Goff Rams ranked 29th. You can see the teams played a bit of a role, but the majority of the difference was the quarterback.

2 - The Coordinator

In 2017 the Steelers offensive coordinator was Todd Haley. The Steelers were a top 10 passing offense, as they were in almost every year he was the coordinator. Randy Fichtner took over in 2018 and the numbers dropped, similar to the slow rise in Todd Haley’s first year running the offense, 2018 wasn’t the end of the fall off. In 2019 the Steelers passing game was exposed, and in 2020 not even Ben Roethlisberger could save it. Matt Canada is just as bad. The Steelers best offense was when they just let Ben Roethlisberger take over and wing it out of no-huddle. A lot of the Steelers best plays were adlibs drawn up on the spot by Ben Roethlisberger. Remember the game winner in Philly 2020 when Ben had to tell Claypool where to stand and what route to run? The offense was the issue, not the quarterback.

3 - The Offensive line

Mike Munchak, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Allejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Matt Feiler. The Steelers offensive line from 2014 when Munchak arrived to his last season in 2018 was fantastic. In 2013 the Steelers rate of allowing sacks was just under 7%, it would drop to just above 5% in 2014 and 2015, and then from 2016 to 2018 it would stay right around 3.5%, half of what it was the year before Munchak arrived. Look at the run game, in 2013 Le’Veon Bell had a solid rookie season. From 2014 to 2017 he was one of the most productive running backs of all time. In 2018 he sat out and James Conner rushed for career highs and made the Pro Bowl. Conner averaged 4.5 yards per carry with Munchak coaching his line, 4.0 yards per carry since, including a 3.7 average while making the Pro Bowl in Arizona in 2021. Injuries have taken a toll as well.

I have to add that the Steelers sack allowed rate in 2020 was 2.1%, but I think most of us saw how Ben Roethlisberger was throwing fast to avoid taking hits (hence the passing game plummeting). in 2021 with Roethlisberger still throwing quick the sack rate climbed to 5.4% as the team had mostly new starters and two rookies playing.

4 - The Receivers

Antonio Brown’s relationship with the Steelers fell apart in 2018. The drama hurt the team and the passing game, but it was nothing compared to the giant pile of yuck that would come in 2019, 2020 and 2021. The Steelers were known for finding receivers for years, but JuJu Smith-Schuster hasn’t produced like he did in 2017 and 2018 since his injury in 2019. Diontae Johnson made the Pro Bowl based on volume of targets and yards, but among qualifying receivers he ranked outside the top 100 in yards per target. Chase Claypool ranks 55th in yards per target, but his catch rate on deep passes is not at all what it should be for a man with his size. James Washington makes tough catches, but also runs awful routes and lost his spot to Ray-Ray McCloud who belongs on special teams. IT doesn’t matter what the scheme is if the receivers don’t get open, catch the ball and make plays.

That’s our four leading suspects and the evidence against them. Now it is up to you, our resident Steelers detectives to solve the case and let us know which one of them was most responsible for the demise of the Steelers passing game.

Let us know your vote and then share your thoughts in the comments.


Which was the biggest problem for the Steelers passing game last year?

This poll is closed

  • 24%
    The quarterback with the bum arm
    (198 votes)
  • 25%
    The offensive coordinator with the lousy scheme
    (207 votes)
  • 48%
    The offensive line that couldn’t block
    (395 votes)
  • 2%
    The receivers who dropped the ball
    (22 votes)
822 votes total Vote Now