A lot of people like to look at Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s passing numbers and draw correlations between high volumes and losses. Not that this isn’t a fair thing to do, or that there isn’t a correlation—when you’re losing, you’re going to throw the ball more—but it’s more true of almost all quarterbacks, not just Roethlisberger.
And there have been different seasons in which the Steelers have put greater emphasis on the passing game that have delivered success. For most of this season, it did not look as though this would be one. Is there reason to believe that they could change down the home stretch?
While the running game has had a few strong games—Sunday’s game against the Packers was a solid one for sure, with Le’Veon Bell averaging nearly five yards per carry, rushing for 95 yards on 20 carries—it has never taken off like it did at the end of last season.
Over the course of the past two games, we have seen the volume of Roethlisberger’s passes increase. The only time this season through the first two games in which he exceeded 40 or more pass attempts in one contest was in the loss to the Jaguars, which featured five interceptions and plenty of time trailing.
But he threw 45 passes in each of the past two games, and the offense has been using the passing game proactively. They have come out in the no huddle to open each of the past two games, and it has delivered opening-drive touchdowns on both occasions.
In the previous game against the Titans, he completed 30 of his 45 passes for a 66.7 percent completion rate and 299 yards with four touchdowns. He added another 33 completions, for a 73.3 percentage rate, for a season high 351 yards, eclipsing 300 passing yards for just the third time—two of them being wins.
The Steelers morphed into a run-oriented team over the second half of the 2016 season as a measure to reorient a struggling offense that saw a number of injuries at the wide receiver position, and the ground game blossomed.
I can’t help but wonder if we see something akin to the opposite developing this year, as the passing game becomes the strength of the offense. With Roethlisberger easily playing the best football of his career, Antonio Brown in rare form, Martavis Bryant finally perking back up, and JuJu Smith-Schuster being something of a rookie sensation, it would, frankly, make sense.
Of course, they still need to be able to run the ball effectively, and Sunday’s game was a positive sign in terms of their running efficiency. Bell came into the game averaging more than four runs of zero or negative yards per game. He had just one against the Packers.
A more effective, and prominent, passing game should also give the running game more high-quality opportunities, as an offset. Right now, provided that Roethlisberger maintains this level of play, it seems obvious to me that this is the way forward.