Though the Steelers fared admirably well despite injuries to key players during the 2015 season, many fans questioned the team's play calling and strategy on offense. Should the Steelers have played more conservatively en route to their playoff loss to the Super Bowl-bound Denver Broncos?
Ron Lippock: The Steelers attempted too many big plays
The Steelers were a long shot to win in their playoff game against the Denver Broncos, but they treated too many plays on offense as if they took that literally. It's certainly acceptable to take your shots downfield, but on too many occasions, whether by design or due to Ben Roethlisberger's desire make big plays, they went for the big play instead of going for the sure first down by hitting open receivers. A number of times open receivers in the 5-15 yard range went unseen or untargeted in favor of the deep pass. Most notably was an early fourth down and one attempt that was thrown to a double-covered Wheaton in the end zone.
It's a difficult and delicate balance for sure, especially with a quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger who has an uncanny knack for the big play. But the Steelers struggled to maintain drives as Denver and Cincinnati dared them to be patient and hit the underneath receivers, and Pittsburgh refused to take the dare - and the opportunities it provided. As a result, the rhythm of the offense suffered as Pittsburgh was a woeful 2-14 on third and fourth downs against Denver and 3-14 versus the Bengals.
Rarely did they attempt a pass between 5-15 yards. Yes, Pittsburgh attempted their well-known short screens at the line of scrimmage- but the soft middle of those zone and man defenses were not exploited as they should have been. It was too often either safe passes on the line of scrimmage or passes farther downfield. In the Denver game, the broadcasters pointed out multiple times the open receivers in that 5-15 yard range that Roethlisberger never saw or targeted. And while they did hit on a few long gains, they were ultimately under 20% on third and fourth down against the Bengals and Broncos. The offense maintained few drives - had little balance or rhythm.
You live and die by the sword. Big plays helped carry the Steelers into the postseason, to be sure. But the Steelers were at a 40% 3rd/4th down conversion rate during the regular season, with a completion rate of 68%. In the postseason, they dropped to a mere 18% 3rd/4th down conversion rate, with a completion rate of 61%.
Why such a precipitous drop in the postseason?
Well, one good way to determine this is to compare their performance in games where they struggled versus those where they did not struggle on offense.
In games where they scored over 21 points with Roethlisberger predominantly under the helm, they passed for a 69% completion rate and had a third-down conversion rate of 44%.
In games where they scored under 21 points with Roethlisberger predominantly under the helm, they passed for a 61% completion rate and had a third-down conversion rate of 18%.
While these aren't conclusive in their own right, they do support the notion that when Roethlisberger is patient and is more selective in his attempts to go deep, the offense is more effective. They sustain drives and score more points.
Dani Bostick: The Steelers were actually too conservative this season
Once known for their steely defense, the Pittsburgh Steelers are now an offensive powerhouse, thanks to excellent position coaches and some of the most talented players in the entire league. The combination of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and wide receiver Antonio Brown is phenomenal, and somehow improves each year. After Brown on the depth chart, receivers Martavis Bryant and Markus Wheaton are more than adequate, they are future stars in their own right.
The downfall of the Steelers this season was their conservative play calling. Too many times the Steelers opted for quick, short passes behind the line of scrimmage, or even relied on the run as if Ben Roethlisberger had the feeble arm of Peyton Manning and as if all the receivers were functioning at a Limas Sweed level.
The biggest variety in the Broncos playcalling was the cadence of Manning's Omaha battle cry. The Steelers, on the other hand, have more options due to their strong run game, even in the absence of Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, and corps of stellar receivers. The playoff game against the Broncos even saw rookie receiver Sammie Coates and veteran Darrius Heyward-Bey step up and make huge plays.
When long plays failed, it was often due to hesitation on the part of Roethlisberger. Can Markus Wheaton make that catch? I'm not throwing to Antonio Brown, so let me finesse the ball just a bit more. If Roethlisberger trusted his receivers the same way he trusts Heath Miller and Brown, more of those failed attempts at big plays would have resulted in successful conversions.
The Steelers offense enjoys a rare combination of an accurate and competent quarterback along with numerous star-level targets. This season, Roethlisberger completed the most 40+-yard passes in his career (17). This season, Roethlisberger completed 15 passes of over 20 yards on third down and averaged 9.96 yards on third down, a higher average than on first and second down.
Bottom line: He can make big plays on third down. The Steelers should leverage the offense's superpowers even more often, relying on longer plays, particularly after the ground game has been established.
Ron Lippock is the publisher of the Pittsburgh Sports Daily Bulletin, a free daily newsletter and website that offers exclusive interviews with hundreds of former Steeler players, front office personnel, and media, along with daily news updates of the city's professional and college sports teams.