The Pittsburgh Steelers are out of Latrobe and back at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, also referred to as the South Side Facility. We are already into the regular season, where everything is magnified and, you know, actually counts. The team is working through the highs and lows and dramas that go through a typical Steelers season.
How are the rookies performing? What about the players that the team signed in free agency? Who is missing time with injuries, and when are they going to be back? What are the coaches saying about what they are going to do this season that might be different from how it was a year ago?
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: Why don’t the Steelers run play-action passes more frequently?
The Steelers’ use of play-action passing has been a subject of a number of articles penned by myself any others here over the course of the past several years. It used to be a large component of the team’s offense in Ben Roethlisberger’s younger days, even as recently as the first season under Todd Haley.
That season, Roethlisberger utilized play action nearly 19 percent of the time, completing 61 of 85 passes for 701 yards with five touchdowns and one interception. His quarterback rating of 109.7 was 15 points better than his rating without it.
Things started to change a year later. Usage dropped to below 12 percent, and his quarterback rating declined to 78.7. It rebounded in usage and effectiveness the following year, used over 20 percent of the time with a QBR of 112.7, but it was back into hibernation and ineffectiveness the next two years.
It remains sparsely used (under 10 percent the past two years), but it has been working again. Roethlisberger threw four touchdowns to zero interceptions last year with a QBR of 114.7. This, year, he is only using it at a rate of 8.5 percent, but his QBR is over 100, and about 15 points better than without play action.
Roethlisberger ranks 34th in play-action usage so far this season among quarterbacks who qualify. In other words, basically lower than last. He ranked 40th last year. Nobody in the NFL uses play action less frequently than do the Steelers.
The question is why? If they are effective running it—and they have been—then why is it not being utilized more?
The most likely explanation I can come up with is that Roethlisberger is not comfortable running it. He also takes snaps from under center as infrequently as anybody, and it’s hard to sell play action from the shotgun. Is he uncomfortable with the physical motion necessary to run it?
Back in 2016, while the play-action pass was still struggling, I made the observation that he was not putting much effort into selling it, but that changed over the past two years, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the results have improved.