The Pittsburgh Steelers saw a big drop off in deep passing after the 2018 season. That drop off has two easy-to-pick-out causes, first the departure of Antonio Brown, and second, Ben Roethlisberger’s injury early in the 2019 season.
When Ben Roethlisberger returned to action in 2020 the team didn’t have the same success fans were used to seeing from the Steelers offense. A big part of the problem was the lack of a deep passing game. In spite of the addition in 2020 of Chase Claypool, the Steelers deep ball efficiency dropped substantially.
We’re not here to fully explore all the causes of the Steelers less efficient deep passing, it’s a myriad of factors that involve decreased mobility from the quarterback, decreased offensive line play, the loss of Antonio Brown, injuries to JuJu Smith-Schuster, less accurate passes, a stagnant offensive system, a lousy run game... there are too many to name, let alone explore fully.
The question for the Steelers now is how much of the drop off that can be pinned on Ben Roethlisberger’s age and injuries could the Steelers regain with the options they have at quarterback for 2022?
Before we dive into this, I’m not going to go into Ben Roethlisberger before 2019 and his deep passing. Ben Roethlisberger was a fantastic downfield passer for the vast majority of his career and was easily better than any of the options the Steelers have on the roster or in the draft. This article is not going to compare what the Steelers can have in 2022 with what they had from Ben Roethlisberger in 2018 and before. That would be depressing. I’m just going to look at what we saw in 2019 and beyond.
I need to cover the obvious here, this article is going to be dealing with small sample sizes, that’s the nature of the situation. But small sample sizes aren’t immediately invalid, and we’ll look into them to see what kind of caveats need to be attached as we go.
The QB stats
To start, let’s look at the overall numbers, from 2019 to 2021, passes travelling at least 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
First, Devlin Hodges! Hodges was, for a short section of games, an incredibly efficient downfield passer. Strange that he is also a player not in the NFL largely because of his arm strength. On one hand that should tell you arm strength, while important, is not at all the most important part of a successful deep passing offense.
Secondly, it should remind you of just how crazy the Devlin Hodges wins were, and how fast and far his drop was when defenses learned his weaknesses and limitations and attacked them. It’s also a great reminder of how small sample sizes work, such as when Hodges went 4/16 for 116 yards, 0 TDs and 4 INTs in his last three games. This means before the Buffalo game in 2019, Hodges had an insane stat line on downfield passes: 9/15 (60%) 287 yards (19.1), 2 TDs, 2 INT, and a 104.2 passer rating.
Keep this in mind, that stats are often driven by both great results and terrible results, and sifting through those often reveals more truth than just looking at the overall numbers.
Moving past Devlin Hodges and the lessons he has for us, a few things stand out.
First: OUCH! Dwayne Haskins, those numbers are not good. A 17.5 passer rating? With 40 more attempts and 28 more yards than Devlin Hodges? A 1 to 8 TD to INT ratio? This is all kinds of bad. I looked at his different years and different factors, but it doesn’t get better. Dwayne Haskins has not been a good deep ball passer in the NFL, with one caveat we’ll look at late.
Second: There is not a ton of separation between Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Mitchell Trubisky. The biggest difference is in the TD/INT ratios, and that is driven by seasons. Trubisky from 2017 to 2019 was consistently right around the 1/1 ratio of interceptions and touchdowns, but in 2020 when the Chicago offense fell apart, his completion percentage dropped, and he threw more than twice as many interceptions as touchdowns.
In the same way, Ben Roethlisberger’s success throwing deep is driven by his 11 to 5 TD to interception ratio in 2020. In 2021 when the pass blocking dropped off his numbers were much worse.
But even inside of those divisions, pre-2020 Mitchell Trubisky was very similar to 2021 Ben Roethlisberger and 2019-2021 Mason Rudolph in deep passing success. On the surface, there isn’t much hope that the Steelers are going to get better deep passing in 2022 than they got from Ben Roethlisberger in 2021, the worst deep passing season of his career.
The Receiver Side
Quarterbacks don’t throw passes in a vacuum. They need receivers to catch their targets, and they need receivers to be on the same page with them, and that shows up immediately when we start looking at the passing numbers by the targets they are throwing to.
One of the most interesting statistical comparisons I’ve ever done is the difference between three Steeler quarterbacks and their deep passing stats by receiver. For this we are going to look at Ben Roethlisberger, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges.
Let’s look at deep passing efficiency on passes to Diontae Johnson.
QB A: 29.1% complete, 30 yards per completion, 8.7 yards per pass, 1 TD every 9 targets
QB B: 57.1% complete, 21 yards per completion, 12.1 yards per pass, 1 TD every 6.5 targets
QB C: 50% complete, 38 yards per completion, 18.9 yards per pass 1 TD every 4.7 targets.
Can you guess which quarterback is which?
Quarterback B is Devlin Hodges, Quarterback C is Mason Rudolph, Quarterback A is Ben Roethlisberger. And it isn’t just 2021 Ben Roethlisberger struggling to connect with Johnson, his 2020 and 2021 numbers are very similar. Ben Roethlisberger and Diontae Johnson were fantastic on short routes, but that connection never led to efficient passing downfield.
On the other hand, Mason Rudolph and Diontae Johnson have been phenomenal together in a small sample size.
When it comes to James Washington we get a very different arrangement, with Mason Rudolph the worst at connecting with Washington despite Washington being Rudolph’s most targeted receiver downfield. Ben Roethlisberger was better than Rudolph throwing to Washington deep, but the best by far was Devlin Hodges who averaged 19.2 yards per target throwing to James Washington, well above Roethlisberger’s 9.9 yards per target or Rudolph’s awful 7.6 yards per target on downfield passes to Washington.
Ben Roethlisberger's top deep target in efficiency was JuJu Smith-Schuster, who ranks #1 for deep ball efficiency for Roethlisberger's career, and yet in 2020 and 2021 was rarely used as a downfield receiver. JuJu Smith-Schuster was also good with Mason Rudolph, but Devlin Hodges and Smith-Schuster struggled to complete any passes down field or short.
Chase Claypool came in second. Claypool was the only receiver outside of Smith-Schuster to average at least ten yards per target on Ben Roethlisberger deep passes. In a very small sample size (one game, 5 deep passes) Claypool was also very effective with Mason Rudolph, recording 69 yards and a TD on those 5 targets. It also stands out that in the Detroit tie, Claypool was not playing. With his typical struggles throwing to Washington, Ray-Ray McCloud set career highs in targets, receptions, and yards. His second through 8th best receiving games are with Roethlisberger, but Rudolph and McCloud is number one by a wide margin. It’s not just possible, but probable, that Chase Claypool playing in that game is enough to turn that tie into a win.
It should stand out that three quarterbacks had wildly different levels of success with the same receivers. When we look at overall stats it looks bad for Mason Rudolph, but the main two receivers returning are Claypool and Johnson, two receivers that Mason Rudolph threw to better than Ben Roethlisberger did.
Another factor I want to cover quickly is receivers who did not do well with quarterbacks. For example, Mason Rudolph went 1 for 19 throwing to Johnny Holton, Vance McDonald, Donte Moncrief and Tevin Jones downfield combined. Ben Roethlisberger went 1 for 16 throwing deep to Ray-Ray McCloud, Donte Moncrief, Johnny Holton and Pat Freiermuth. Freiermuth and Roethlisberger not connecting at all downfield might be surprising considering Eric Ebron is one of Ben Roethlisberger’s more efficient deep targets.
But that’s how it works. Some players connect, others don’t. And on downfield passes, that chemistry matters more than pure talent.
That brings us to the other two quarterbacks, Dwayne Haskins deep passing looks terrible to every receiver except Terry McLaurin, who has done better with the other quarterbacks he has played with. Haskins, in this evaluation, doesn’t look good at all.
Mitchell Trubisky had success throwing to Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller in Chicago. Trubisky ranks third in efficiency to two much smaller sample sizes from Nick Foles and Chase Daniel throwing downfield to Allen Robinson, but his 11.6 yards per target is still very good. Throwing to Taylor Gabriel, Trubisky has similar success to Matt Ryan as the top two deep throwing quarterbacks in his career. Anthony Miller stands out as a player Trubisky had a lot of success throwing to down field, and who hasn’t produced much at all outside of his time with Trubisky in Chicago.
Anthony Miller joined the Steelers last season, played only 25 snaps on offense, and caught his only target for 2 yards. But Miller may have more value this season with Mitchell Trubisky joining him on the Steelers. It’s interesting because the Steelers were aggressive in pursuing Trubisky, and with Trubisky in Buffalo playing backup when the Steelers acquired Miller in 2021, you have to wonder if that acquisition wasn’t a move made with the team already looking at pursuing Trubisky this offseason.
There are a lot of words and stats in this article, and at the end, it’s a bit hard to answer the initial question. Will the Steelers see better deep passing from the quarterbacks on their roster than they did from Ben Roethlisberger in 2021? If the stats in their small sample size hold up, Mason Rudolph should be an upgrade over Roethlisberger, largely because of the success he has had with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool. Trubisky is an unknown as he could find great chemistry with both Claypool and Johnson, just one of them, or potentially neither. This is going to be a big part of the equation. But based on his deep passing compared to his leading target’s other quarterbacks, I think there is a good chance of him being better with the Steelers than Ben Roethlisberger was in 2021.
Of course, as stated in the introduction, a lot of that success, or lack thereof, will be determined by other factors like the success of the run game, the pass blocking of the offensive line, and the health of everyone involved.
In the end, I’m hopeful and excited to watch this mystery unravel and be solved before our eyes as the offseason continues and the 2022 NFL season approaches.