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Devil’s Advocate: Big Ben’s Pickable Passes

You may recall for the past several offseasons that I ran an article series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take. I used it to explore different issues and topics the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing and took a positive or negative approach, examining each side in a separate article. This is essentially the same idea behind that, only condensed into one article for every topic.

In this version of the idea, I’ll be playing the Devil’s Advocate for both sides of the issue, looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in trying to find the range of likely outcomes of what is likely to happen for the Steelers relating to whatever topic the article is covering.

When it comes to the process of trying to construct a championship roster, the reality is that there are a ton of moving parts, and several ways to acquire said parts. There are a lot of things that can go right or wrong in not always predictable ways, so I think it’s helpful to try to look at issues by seeking out the boundaries of the likely positive or negative results.

Topic: Is Ben Roethlisberger’s uptick in interceptions over recent seasons a cause for concern?

I think we all know by now that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is winding down his playing days. He is at this point taking his career year by year, committing 100 percent only to the next season on the horizon.

He believes that approaching it this way will best help him give everything he has to each season, as though it will be his last, because, well…it may be his last. But his last couple of seasons have featured an unfortunate regression when it comes to throwing interceptions. So should this be a cause for concern?

It was just two years ago that he posted near-career lows, throwing just nine interceptions on over 600 passes, averaging an interception on just 1.5 percent of his throws. Yet he has posted some of his highest turnover ratios since early in his career, when he threw far fewer passes.

In 2015, he threw 16 interceptions despite missing four games, posting a 3.4 percent ratio, his worst since 2006. He still threw 13 last year in 14 games for a 2.6 percent ratio, but he also had a high volume of potential interceptions that were dropped. According to a Monday Morning Quarterback article, he had 34 interceptable throws last year for the fourth-highest percentage of such passes in the league.

It goes without saying that this is pretty damn alarming, concerning, or whatever other adjective you want to use. On average, more than one of every 20 passes he threw were passes that could have reasonably been picked off. That is concerning. Yes. Full stop. Football Outsiders also had him at an adjusted interception rate of 4.8 percent with 12 interceptions that were dropped. That was the worst percentage in the league.

But that is last year. This is this year. And a lot of those interceptable passes came in the games surrounding his knee injury. I documented a number of them myself in a film study of the Ravens game, in which he returned from said injury. There were four passes in that game alone that should have been interceptions, though one was off a deflection of a misplaced pass.

In other words, there is a pretty strong correlation between his pickable passes, as I referred to them, and his health, so it should be less of a concern as long as he stays healthy.

I also believe it would be fair to attribute some of the rise in his interceptions over the past couple of years to the youth and instability of his receiving corps over that span. This year’s group figures to be the most stable and talented he has had in that period, which is another reason to be optimistic that his passes will find fewer opposing hands, whether they were picked off or not.

Which side do you lean closer toward?

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