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The Optimist’s Take: Roethlisberger’s Touchdown Efficiency

The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.

Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.

Question: Can Ben Roethlisberger improve his scoring efficiency in 2016?

There are a few approaches that one might take in arguing that the 2015 season was perhaps the best of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s career. For one, his yards per game figure was among the highest in NFL history, and had he played a full season, he was projected to finish well over 5000 yards, and with the third-most of all time.

For another, his accuracy as a passer was higher than ever, hitting 68 percent, and his deep passing accuracy even was over 50 percent, which is extremely impressive. The vertical offense was a crucial part of the team’s success. Finally, he posted the highest net yards per pass attempt figure of his career.

One argument that cannot be made, however, was that he was an efficient scorer in terms of leading the team to touchdowns in the air. While he obviously missed four games and parts of several others, he threw just 21 touchdown passes, which was his lowest mark in years.

More to the point, his touchdown percentage relative to the number of passes that he threw was the fifth-lowest mark of his career, and his lowest since the 2011 season, after which the Steelers made a change at offensive coordinator. To put a finer point on it, his 4.5 percent touchdown rate ranked 18th in the league last season, and the 17 ahead of him all were at least .6 percentage points ahead of him. Nine were a full percentage point ahead.

But it should not be overly surprising to see such a fluctuation in a season in which Roethlisberger battled a number of injuries. His sprained MCL, which knocked him out for four games, no doubt had some effect on him throughout the season, and he also subsequently injured his foot twice, as well as his shoulder.

This is also directly parallel to an unusually high interception rate. He only threw five more touchdown passes than interceptions last season, something that he had only done (or worse) twice before. One of those was in 2006, following a motorcycle accident and an emergency appendectomy, which was a total outlier season. The other was 2008, during which he didn’t miss a game, but during which he was constantly bombarded and played through a number of injuries.

Roethlisberger’s game elevated in many ways last season, but there is reason to suspect that injuries were the primary culprit behind his regression in the touchdown department. Of course, the offense gaining 15 touchdowns on the ground last season, the most in years, didn’t hurt either.

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