In the first 14 games of the 2020 season, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback attempted 70 passes of 20 or more air yards, according to Pro Football Focus. He completed only 20 of them, for 610 yards and nine touchdowns to five interceptions, with only two of the incompletions being classified as a dropped pass by the target. The rest were considered uncatchable.
He completed three of six deep targets on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, going for 98 yards and two touchdowns to zero interceptions, with a passer rating of 135.4. While it’s not new to his game, he also drew two deep defensive pass interference penalties in the game, as well. Clearly, the deep ball was an important aspect in their comeback.
“I thought the things that were the catalysts for change that got us going were the splash plays on offense, the ability to connect down the field—some to Diontae [Johnson], to [Chase] Claypool—not only the ones that we connected, but we had some penalty plays downfield that were field-flipping or changed the field positioning”, head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters on Tuesday. “I thought we rode that wave of chunk plays in an effort to produce points in the second half of the game”.
Of course, it helps when two of those chunk plays go for six, as did the 39-yarder to Johnson and a 25-yard touchdown that ultimately proved to be the game-winning score, connecting with JuJu Smith-Schuster for his career-best eighth touchdown of the year.
The deep ball is something that has been discussed a lot this year in the Steelers’ offense and whether or not Roethlisberger was comfortable with it, let alone successful doing it. “I don’t feel like there was any issues regarding his confidence”, Tomlin said.
“There were some opportunities missed down the field, whether or not we didn’t take them or the route wasn’t run correctly or what have you”, he added. “It’s popcorn when you’re not executing and executing at a high level. Whatever it may be, we got it together at the half, and we had more success in the second half. That was a catalyst for getting our unit going”.
As far as how the team might benefit as a whole with their finding more success moving the ball down the field, that wasn’t exactly on his mind. “I’m not worried about the supplementary effects or our opportunities afforded”, he said. “We needed those plays in that game. Those were our intentions when calling them. That’s what’s most important”.
The team has consistently stated all season that the Steelers have never shied away from pushing the ball down the field this year, and they are right. Roethlisberger has the third-most deep pass attempts in the NFL with 76, behind only Tom Brady (82) and Matt Ryan (78). The problem is that he has the fourth-lowest deep ball accuracy out of all quarterbacks with at least 30 deep attempts. It’s never been about a willingness, but rather an ability.