The style of passing game that the Pittsburgh Steelers deployed for the 2020 season proved to be unsustainable, relying upon wide receivers to make plays after the catch on a far too consistent basis, including on third-down situations. It worked for most of the season, but over time, defenses adjusted and played for the short, quick passes.
Part of the problem was that, while Ben Roethlisberger was still throwing the ball down the field, he was not connecting. He was among the league leaders in deep pass attempts, but put up only middling numbers in terms of production, even if you factor in defensive pass interference penalties drawn.
There was not much of an intermediate passing game, which is the area in which the Steelers must expand if they are to reinvigorate their passing game, and something that they did start to do in the late stages of the season.
This will be Matt Canada’s charge, to see if he can produce a 2021 version of Ben Roethlisberger who can be consistently successful in the intermediate range and to do so with much greater frequency.
One of the most startling statistics I’ve seen recently came from Pro Football Focus, which lists Roethlisberger as leading the NFL in percentage of passes thrown short of the first-down marker at a staggering 59.4 percent.
While that’s not as surprising to those who watched Roethlisberger play, that’s about three out of every five passes being thrown short. As game tape piled up over the course of the season, this became more obvious to defenses, and they adjusted.
That’s the reason that Roethlisberger also led the league in batted passes, a couple of which resulted in passes being intercepted. The plan was working fine until it became overly predictable, and without a complementary running game, they couldn’t adjust.
The task at hand now is weighing whether or not Roethlisberger can be the quarterback with whom to make that adjustment. They have already committed to trying it out, with the new restructured deal that they announced, but that doesn’t guarantee results.
The Steelers let go of Randy Fichtner as offensive coordinator because they understood that there were changes that needed to be made, and that last year’s model would no longer work once it had run its course.
Can Canada get more out of Roethlisberger, less predictably, than we saw last season? That is what they are paying him to do. He is still a very talented quarterback, but there are certain limitations at this stage of his career around which they must negotiate. The expansion of the intermediate passing game, especially if the deep passing game cannot be improved, is essential to this evolution.