Explosive plays are a huge component of winning games. There is a huge correlation between drives in which an offense scores a touchdown and drives in which an offense produces at least one explosive play, especially an explosive play of 40 yards or more.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were among the worst in the NFL last season in producing explosive plays, however, so it’s not exactly surprising. They, in fact, ranked dead last with only 37 passing plays of 20 yards or more, though their eight plays of 40 yards or more was closer to the middle of the pack.
Compare that to just one year ago. While a lot of critics knock Ben Roethlisberger’s deep ball accuracy, the team still produced 62 explosive passing plays in 2018, the fourth-most in the NFL that year (and it also would have been tied for the fourth-most this past year). They also tied for the league lead with 16 plays of 40 yards or more in the passing game.
While the loss of Antonio Brown and injuries factor into the massive dip, there’s no way around the stark reality that the loss of Roethlisberger, and the shift to Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, is the biggest reason, by far, for the massive fall-off.
Which should be good news for 2020 with Roethlisberger returning. In fact, recently, Pro Football Focus ranked the veteran quarterback fifth in the league as deep passers. Obviously, they had to use his 2018 numbers to make the comparison. Sam Monson writes:
With no Roethlisberger for almost all of last season, we have pulled up his 2018 statistics to include him on the list. Roethlisberger was an excellent deep passer of the football that year, and that was contrasted starkly with the combination of Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges, who combined to replace him in 2019. Both young players were among the worst deep passers of the ball despite plenty of attempts, which is a big reason the Steelers offense didn’t look anything like itself last year.
That season, Roethlisberger only completed 30 of 87 deep pass attempts (the third-most attempts, and sixth-most completions), throwing for 1100 yards, with 15 touchdowns to only two interceptions on passes thrown 20 or more yards down the field, with a passer rating of 112.9.
In the second half of the year, he completed 20 of 46 deep passing attempts (tied for the most completions) for 781 yards (the most in the NFL) and nine touchdowns (also the most in the NFL), with a passer rating of 120.9.
His getting off to slow starts on connecting on the deep ball is not exactly new. I’m not sure the circumstances of this offseason will make it any easier. But it’s clear that, if he is indeed healthy, we should see the deep passing game come alive again.