In part two of our examination of Ben Roethlisberger’s career high 67.1 completion percentage, we’ll take a look at some other key outlying factors that impacted the quarterback’s success rate.
Our very own Alex Kozora highlighted the creativity of offensive coordinator Todd Haley in a piece he did not long ago that you can find right here. The article basically describes how Haley adeptly moved receivers around in his formations to find advantageous matchups, especially for Antonio Brown. When you can put your best receiver in even more favorable situations to win one-on-one, you’re effectively making life a whole lot easier for your quarterback.
Thanks to his own route-running prowess and being placed in mismatch situations, Brown was able to feast on defenses last season for 129 catches on 182 targets. That’s a 71% success rate connection with Roethlisberger, up from the prior year’s 67%. It might not seem like much of a boost, but with Markus Wheaton struggling to stay on the same page with Roethlisberger during some points of the season and Martavis Bryant dropping three passes while working through common rookie mistakes, Brown’s reliability was crucial to the team’s success through the air.
Much of that is of course thanks to Haley’s offensive schemes, and how much he progressed in terms of gelling with Roethlisberger this past season. Offensive success rate is all about creating mismatches and exploiting opponents’ defensive weaknesses. I often criticized Haley in the past for not being aggressive enough with his play-calling and attacking other team’s soft spots, but over the course of last season that approach really changed in Pittsburgh.
The emergence of Bryant had a lot to do with those changes, as the rookie gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a true deep threat weapon that could be utilized to keep defenses off balance. It isn’t that Brown or Wheaton can’t win vertically, but neither have the blazing speed or high-point ability of Bryant, who erupted onto the scene with a 35-yard touchdown catch on Monday Night Football in his NFL debut.
That kind of impact down the field would continue all season long, as Bryant led all NFL players with double-digit catches with a whopping 21.1 yards per catch. Establishing a deep threat completely changes the way that other teams defend an offense, especially when you have two dynamic underneath-to-intermediate range threats in Le’Veon Bell and Brown to worry about.
Because Pittsburgh could hurt opponents in a variety of ways, defenses were constantly kept guessing and were often forced to leave Bryant or Wheaton in advantageous situations by covering them with their 2nd or 3rd best cornerback. If a team refused to shadow Brown with their top cover man, the result was typically a quick torch by the Steelers veteran receiver. By being aggressive and forcing the defense to react to their personnel and schemes, the Steelers already had advantages on offense before the ball was even snapped.
Heath Miller’s numbers are the ultimate by-product of the stress Roethlisberger, the running game, and the receiving corps puts on a defense. While Miller is still a weapon from the tight end position, his days of being a high-octane threat individually are likely over. That doesn’t mean Miller can’t still produce, as he often gets the call on quick hitters down the seam on play-action passes and such. Again, the threat of the team’s more dynamic playmakers creates opportunities for their more standard pieces to win in other areas of the field. In terms of Ben Roethlisberger’s completion percentage, Miller’s career-high five drops were the only thing standing between a 78 percent completion rate between the quarterback and tight end, and the still-stellar official mark of 73 percent.
In examining the impact of the Steelers offensive skill players on Roethlisberger’s career-high accuracy mark, one of the most intriguing aspects of the results is the widespread division of targets amongst the unit. Four players saw 80 or more targets, with the top four receivers’ (non-running backs) opportunities coming very close to last year’s number (431 targets in 2013, 406 in 2014).
Tomorrow we’ll step inside the film room for a closer examination of how some of these offensive tactics helped create a higher percentage success rate in the passing game for Pittsburgh in 2014.