One of Pittsburgh Steelers fans’ favorite topics when the team gets off to a slow start in the first game of the season is to point to a lack of reps for prominent players during the preseason. Over the past three seasons alone, the team has gone 1-1-1 in openers, and the one victory was a narrow one against a Cleveland Browns team that didn’t win a game until Week 16 in 2016.
This preseason, the Steelers’ starting offense, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, played a grand total of 19 snaps during the third game, spanning three drives, the final one of which was an extended drive that ended in a touchdown to wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster. The first two drives were less promising, but that drive-capper felt like a good stopping point.
Yet the offense looked anything but prepared in the regular season opener against the New England Patriots, and ultimately put up just three points, which is the lowest total they have managed since Week Three of the 2016 season, when they were similarly blown out by the Philadelphia Eagles and Carson Wentz, making his third career start.
Yesterday during his media availability session, Roethlisberger was asked about the correlation between preseason reps and performance during the early portions of the regular season. He was specifically asked what sort of jump they made from the first game of the 2018 season to the season (which they lost, mind you. “I don’t remember exactly”, he said:
I mean, you’re always hopefully getting better as the season goes on because you’re getting more games in, you’re getting a better understanding of each other, whether it’s new guys, young guys. Typically, you’re always improving as the season goes. Does the preseason have anything to do with it? There are a lot of teams that didn’t play anybody in the preseason and they won games Sunday, so I don’t know what that has to do with it. For us, I think we’ll just continue to get better.
Looking through Pro Football Focus’ data for snap counts, the quarterback who was an intended starter to begin the season who saw the most work during the preseason was understandably first-overall pick Kyler Murray, but even he only had 42 dropbacks. Ryan Fitzpatrick had 37, but he was competing for a starting job. Jameis Winston, who was suspended to begin last season and who shuffled back and forth with Fitzpatrick, also played 39..
The vast majority of starters, however, had 30 or fewer dropbacks. Among those who actually had fewer than Roethlisberger were Drew Brees, Cam Newton, Deshaun Watson, and Nick Foles. Tom Brady had the actually same amount of dropbacks—13—as Roethlisberger.