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The Pessimist’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 pessimist’s take on the following question.

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

Of all the ways in which Ben Roethlisberger continued to improve upon the best stretch of performances in his career, one area in which he was decidedly below par was in terms of the efficiency with which he both scored and protected the ball, posting touchdown and interception percentages per pass that lean significantly closer to his worst years than to his best.

As mentioned yesterday, as well, his touchdown rate ranked just 18th in the league last year, which is a rather low number for a quarterback who made the Pro Bowl without having had to be named a fifth alternate, as the game works these days.

So was last year an outlier, or the start of a new trend—or, more likely, simply somewhere in between? Because he was certainly heading in a very positive direction during the 2014 season, which was arguably the finest of his career.

That year, he tied a career- and franchise-best 32 touchdowns passes, and he did so with relative efficiency, connecting for a touchdown on 5.3 percent of his passes. In contract, just 1.5 percent of his passes ended up as interceptions, finishing the year with nine.

Last season, he threw a touchdown on just 4.5 percent of his passes, but 3.4 percent of his throws ended up in the hands of the other team. I think it’s obvious to see the negative trend here. Of course, he played through injuries, which no doubt affected both statistics; but I would wager it was much more relevant to the turnover numbers.

What was not contingent upon his health was his at times over-reliance on Antonio Brown, the recipient of an obscenely high percentage of his passes, which obviously helped the latter make more NFL history, but which somewhat constricted the distribution of the ball and limited the variability that the defense had to account for.

It certainly will not help to have lost both Heath Miller and Martavis Bryant in the same offseason—the former permanent, the latter to be determined. Even if the Steelers may have others to take their place, they will be filling in roles for which they have not really filled previously, at least not on an extended basis, nor with a great deal of success.

I certainly can’t imagine that Roethlisberger’s scoring efficiency will be as poor in 2016 as it was last year, but I also don’t suspect that it will pick up where he left off in 2014. For one thing, I may not be as optimistic as others are in the left tackle position.

The reality is, actually, that Roethlisberger had the best overall protection last season than he had in his career, or at least since the offensive line was dismantled and then rebuilt. I don’t imagine the pass protection will improve much if at all from last season, even with the return of Maurkice Pouncey, considering we had the other four linemen play more or less at their career peaks. And this all assumes that he remains healthy.

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