By the ninth game of the 2018 regular season, every single skill position player on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 53-man roster has now caught at least one pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. That list of players spans three running backs, six wide receivers, three tight ends, and a fullback, for a total of 13 players.
The 15-year veteran has improved his ball distribution during the second quarter of the season after fixating too much and too often on either Antonio Brown or JuJu Smith-Schuster. Neither of them have put up weekly eye-popping numbers as a result, but in exchange we have gotten meaningful contributions from the likes of Ryan Switzer, Xavier Grimble, and even Jaylen Samuels and Roosevelt Nix.
That’s not to mention the regular assets of James Conner, Jesse James, and Vance McDonald, all of whom have been on the receiving end of a touchdown pass within the past week (if you allow for the fact that the Steelers played two games).
In reality, the only player eligible for a pass who has not caught a pass yet is rookie tackle Chukwuma Okorafor, who serves as the Steelers’ tackle-eligible this year, and frankly the way things are going, it wouldn’t surprise me if he does record a reception by the end of the season.
Even Darrius Heyward-Bey caught his first pass of the season on Thursday night for nine yards. He has played only very sparingly this year on offense, and when he has been on the field, it has either been for run-blocking purposes (a role that Smith-Schuster has taken over) or as the deep threat decoy.
Roethlisberger has thrown 21 touchdown passes in nine games this year, and they have gone to eight different targets so far, with both Conner and Samuels claiming the first receiving touchdowns of their respective careers in the past week.
Two of the players who are struggling to contribute, who also appear to be vying for a weekly helmet on gameday, would be rookie wide receiver James Washington and his veteran ‘rival’, Justin Hunter, who has been a healthy scratch for most of the season.
Washington played almost every snap on Thursday but wasn’t even targeted, while Hunter watched from the sidelines. In his few opportunities to contribute on offense, the veteran hasn’t had much of an impact.
It could be that the second-year Switzer, whom the Steelers traded for only at the start of the season, is slowly emerging in the second half of the year as their number three receiver, at least when it comes to obvious passing situations.
No matter how the roles develop, one thing is clear, and has always been, that being the lack of fear Roethlisberger has shown over the course of his career to throw to any target in any spot, trusting in his teammates to make plays for him. It doesn’t always work out, of course, but we are seeing in recent weeks what spreading the ball around can produce.