Though he has only played in six games this season, starting in five, an obvious pattern emerged about Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the way he approached third down.
He was aggressive. Extremely aggressive, regularly launching the long ball whenever he could. This was put on display most effectively against the 49ers, during which he systematically took advantage of third-down opportunities to get vertical, en route to the team’s best offensive showing of the season to date.
According to Pro Football Focus, however, he is much more aggressive than the norm—in fact, more aggressive than everybody—and there’s a reason for it. In their study of third-down performance, from which I wrote about Antonio Brown’s league-leading 27 receptions, Roethlisberger was mentioned in two data points.
PFF’s charting reveals that Roethlisberger, more than anybody in the league, has been the beneficiary of an efficient offense most often placing him in a manageable situation on third down.
Using the metric of the frequency with which a quarterback dropped back to pass on third downs on which eight or more yards were required for a first down or touchdown, Roethlisberger had the lowest percentage among qualified quarterbacks, facing such situations just 35.1 percent of the time, or on 20 of 57 dropbacks. That factor goes a long way toward explaining his 43.9 percent conversion rate on third-down throws, also near the top of the league.
The veteran has faced an average of 7.1 yards-to-go per dropback this season, among the lowest in the NFL. But when it comes to depth of target, nobody really comes close to Roethlisberger in terms of going vertical.
PFF has calculated that the average depth of target on his third-down passes, relative to the average yards to go, is a difference of about 6.8 yards. That means, on average, his pass will be nearly seven yards beyond the first-down marker.
A simple and quick addition of the two numbers would reveal that Roethlisberger’s average depth of target on third down this season is very nearly 14 yards. The next closest is, unsurprisingly, Carson Palmer, whose 6.8 average yards to go plus depth of target differential of 5.1 reveals a depth of target of approximately 12 yards.
On the season, Roethlisberger has completed 33 of 53 third-down passes for 616 yards, averaging 11.6 yards per attempt, and 18.7 yards per completion. However, he has also thrown three of his interceptions on third down, and just one touchdown, taking four sacks while posting a quarterback rating of 85.1.
His third-down passing has produced so far 10 explosive plays, six of which have gone for at least 40 yards. Amazingly, only half of those 10 plays have gone to Antonio Brown, though he has caught 22 of his 33 completion for 373 yards and the lone touchdown.
It’s worth noting that of his 11 throws on third and three or less outside of the red zone, five were recorded as deep balls. Three were incomplete, but two produced gains of 48 and 56 yards.