Steelers must let Big Ben air it out
Pittsburgh must cut ties to some old views on offense and let Roethlisberger loose
By Peter Keating
Should the Pittsburgh Steelers let Ben Roethlisberger throw the ball more next season?
The New York Giants won Super Bowl XLVI because ultimately, their receivers made big plays and New England's didn't. After 56 minutes of thrilling, occasionally sloppy, dink-and-dunk chess, the Patriots tried to go deep, and couldn't, while the Giants tried to go deep, and did.
And looking forward to next season, there is one team more than any other that should draw inspiration from the Giants' success: the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Like the Giants, the Steelers are a venerable franchise and a smart organization, run by old-school ownership and led by a quarterback drafted in 2004 who has made a boatload of clutch plays on his way to winning two Super Bowls. And like the Giants, the Steelers are proud of their blue-collar identity: These are teams with long traditions of smashing opponents at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. But while the Giants successfully morphed into a big-play offense this season -- Eli Manning not only threw for 4,933 yards, but averaged 13.7 yards per completion, third-best in the NFL -- the Steelers were in flux.
It's not just that Ben Roethlisberger suffered a broken thumb and a high ankle sprain, or that injuries kept Pittsburgh's offense from any semblance of continuity. It's that the Steelers kept relying on RB Rashard Mendenhall even though he completely lacked explosiveness, averaging just 1.6 yards after contact per carry last year, 46th in the NFL. (And you can't lay that on the O-line, because Isaac Redman ranked second in the league, but had fewer than half as many carries as Mendenhall.) It's that TE Heath Miller was effective but targeted just 75 times, 20th among tight ends, and often seemed to disappear toward the end of games. It's that WR Mike Wallace started out as a superstar, with 43 catches for 800 yards in the first eight games of the season, but then drifted to just 29 receptions for 393 yards in the last eight. Does Wallace need more help with double coverages? Does he need to run better routes? Did his rapport with Big Ben lose something when Antonio Brown arrived? Nobody's quite sure. But the bombs stopped falling his way after Halloween.
Steelers fans loved to bash former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians for everything wrong with their team, and last month Arians packed his bags and went back to work for the Colts, where he was quarterbacks coach from 1998 to 2000. But Arians wasn't responsible for the fundamental problem that underlies all of Pittsburgh's issues: The Steelers want to remain a running team, but they're more effective when they pass. Without Arians, the big question is: How should they run the offense under Roethlisberger now?
"If he were, I don't want to say 'allowed,' but his preference would be to throw the ball more, use the weapons we have and throw it," Roethlisberger said last April, referring to Arians. "We both think ... that we call a lot more runs because we know that's what we're supposed to do. And I don't know if that's 'supposed to' from the fans, the media, the owner, who knows?"
Well, we know. It's from all three. The Steelers define themselves as a hard-working, lunchpail kind of squad, and it's hard for their proletarian-identifying owner, their traditionalist fans and their stuck-in-the-days-of-Chuck-Noll beat writers to see them as anything but bruisers. But these days, if you're plodding forward, you're really moving backward, because your competition is probably taking to the air.
This season, we've analyzed how successful teams understand that offensive balance doesn't mean rushing and passing an equal amount of times, but maximizing total yards per play, and how the best teams are adding passing yards by throwing deep and by targeting new-breed tight ends. Yet at Art Rooney's behest and under coach Mike Tomlin's direction, the Steelers ran the ball on 47.4 percent of plays in 2010 and 42.8 percent of plays in 2011 -- huge numbers for a team with a quarterback many consider one of the five best in the league. (The Giants, Packers and Saints all rushed on fewer than 40 percent of plays this season; the Lions were at 33.6 percent.)
The statistical case for finally switching gears is simple. Roethlisberger can throw deep: Even with his injuries, he averaged 9.1 yards per attempt in 2011, seventh-best in the NFL. He has reliable receivers: The Steelers dropped just 2.9 percent of targets in 2011, the lowest rate in football. And those receivers make plays: Pittsburgh averaged 5.8 yards after catch per reception, sixth-most in the league. Wallace and Brown each averaged more than 16 yards a catch, and they're both just 25 years old -- and Emmanuel Sanders is a heck of a third wideout.
It's actually fairly amazing that with Roethlisberger, Wallace and Brown operating as effectively as they did, the Steelers managed to score only 325 points last year. But that's what conservative play calling will do: Because runs are generally less effective than passes, rushing too often in critical situations will kill drive after drive. Through most of last season, Football Outsiders ranked Pittsburgh as a top-10 offense based on how efficient the Steelers were per play. But while they ended the season ranked ninth in net yards per passing attempt (which includes sacks) and 12th in offensive yards, they were just 21st in points.
Todd Haley will be Pittsburgh's new offensive coordinator.In contrast, the Giants scored 394 points, eighth-most in the NFL, despite a running game that averaged a league-worst 3.5 YPA and that was particularly horrendous in critical short-yardage situations. Why? Because adding deep throws allowed them to extend Manning's proficiency over a greater number of plays.
Advanced metrics indicate that approximately zero percent of you are going to believe this, but on a per-play basis, Manning didn't actually play better in 2011 than he did in 2010. Yes, he threw for more yards and more yards per attempt, with fewer interceptions. But, as we explored way back in September, Manning's 2010 was considerably better than it appeared from his raw stats: His picks were largely the fault of his teammates, and he was exceptionally good at avoiding sacks and fumbles. And many of Manning's passes in 2011 -- and in 2012! -- were so big and so exciting that at the moment, it seems like he has no flaws at all. The reality: Manning's Total Quarterback Rating, which takes into account all of a QB's contributions to every game, play by play -- the interceptions that were on Manning this year, and the extra sacks, as well as all the bombs to Victor Cruz and Jake Ballard -- was 61.0 in 2011, and 64.2 in 2010.
What changed this season wasn't Manning's efficiency, but the volume of his production. In 2011, he added an estimated 93 points to the Giants' offense through his passing, up from 66.1 points in 2010, because he was on the field more: 725 action plays, versus 654 a year earlier. Because Manning threw more -- and maintained his effectiveness as the number and depth of his attempts increased -- the Giants gained more yards and more first downs through the air, and more yards per play overall, than in 2010. The big lesson here is that passing generally keeps an offense going far more effectively than rushing. And because the Giants assigned Manning more responsibility, they got more out of his excellence.
Which brings us back to Big Ben. Roethlisberger had a QBR of 63.3 this year, but he was in on only 654 action plays. That might sound like a lot, but it ranked just 13th in the league -- and the 10 most active QBs had an average of 732 action plays in 2011, up from 677 in just the past two seasons. It's pretty clear the Steelers aren't getting as much as they could out of Roethlisberger.
Todd Haley, Pittsburgh's soon-to-be new offensive coordinator, has run some amazing offenses dominated by wideouts, topped by the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, who had three 1,000-yard receivers. His most important job now isn't to get Wallace straightened out or to involve the Steelers' running backs more in the passing game. It's to convince Rooney and all those who still see the Steelers as hard hats that it's time to take the cuffs off Big Ben. Maybe if Roethlisberger gets to air the ball out early, he won't have to scramble to win so many games late, reducing the punishment he takes. Or maybe he'll have a lot of fun doing both -- like Manning.
Thanks to Jeff Bennett, Albert Larcada and Alok Pattani for research assistance throughout this season.
Peter Keating is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine, where he has covered investigative and financial stories since 1999. He coordinates The Mag's annual "Ultimate Standings" project, which ranks all pro franchises according to how much they give back to fans. His work on concussions in football has earned awards from the Deadline Club, the New York Press Club and the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.