Even in the wake of a win that moved them to 11-0, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin saw the warning signs.
“It was really junior varsity, to be quite honest with you,” Tomlin said in the wake of their narrow 19-14 victory over a Baltimore Ravens team missing MVP Lamar Jackson and a host of others.
But the Steelers evidently failed to heed the lessons from that near miss, which has subsequently been followed by three successive defeats, significantly damaging their hopes of being the number one seed in the AFC playoffs.
There are several reasons for their sudden decline. An extremely talented wide receiving corps has struggled to realise its potential, the running game has failed to get going and an elite defense has been hamstrung by edge rusher Bud Dupree’s torn ACL.
The 2020 Steelers are the 1st team in NFL history to lose multiple games in which they entered with 11+ wins and their opponent entered with 4 or fewer wins
— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) December 22, 2020
Yet it is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who is under the most scrutiny after a string of unconvincing performances that have raised the question of whether they should look to replace the two-time Super Bowl winner.
Roethlisberger is expected to stick around for 2021 – the final year of his contract. Here we discuss whether it is wise for the Steelers to stick with the franchise legend with evidence indicating they may well fall short this year because of their quarterback’s limitations.
Roethlisberger still a comeback king
There is some evidence in the raw numbers to support Roethlisberger remaining under center beyond this season, though it is not plentiful.
His 30 touchdown passes were the sixth most in the NFL entering Week 16 while only Ryan Tannehill of the Tennessee Titans has authored more fourth-quarter comebacks (4) than Roethlisberger (3).
Yet by several other measures, Roethlisberger is a quarterback in steep decline.
Fast but often inaccurate throws
While Roethlisberger has completed a respectable 65.3 percent of his passes, a deeper dive into the numbers hints at an inaccurate season.
According to the NFL’s NextGen Stats, Roethlisberger is underperforming his expected completion percentage of 67.4 by 2.1 per cent.
He is getting the ball out very quickly, his 2.31 seconds is the fastest time from snap to throw in the NFL, but the problem is he is not always doing so accurately and rarely very far down the field.
Indeed, Roethlisberger’s adjusted net yards per attempt figure of 6.13 was 23rd in the NFL going into the penultimate week of the season, and his struggles in that regard have come into even keener focus over the past three weeks.
A flat three weeks
In his first 11 games of the year, Roethlisberger adjusted net yards per attempt was 6.67. However, over the course of the past three weeks and the Steelers’ successive defeats to the Washington Football Team, Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals, that figure has dropped to 4.31.
Ben Roethlisberger First Half Passing Chart
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 22, 2020
That change in fortune is reflected in the offense’s overall production over the past three games. Pittsburgh’s points per game tally has dropped from 28.8 in the first 11 games to 16.3, while the Steelers have averaged 264.7 yards per game during their losing streak compared to 346.5 beforehand.
They are significantly less efficient in terms of yards per play. The Steelers had been putting up 5.22 yards per play but that number has decreased to 4.32 in the previous three games, and their third-down conversion percentage has dropped from 46 to 26.8.
In short, Roethlisberger was delivering mediocre numbers to begin with and they are getting worse. He could argue, however, that his weapons on offense have not always helped his cause.
Supporting cast struggles
The Steelers have a dynamic group of young receivers, but their inconsistency in terms of catching the ball has plagued their offense all year.
Pittsburgh went into Week 16 leading the league in dropped passes with 37, Steelers receivers failing to handle 6.6 per cent of all passes thrown their way in 2020.
Roethlisberger has also received little help from the Steelers’ running game, which approached Week 16 as the second-worst rushing attack in the NFL having put up just 88.9 yards per game on the ground.
The location of each of Ben Roethlisberger’s 8 drops against Washington (most for any QB in a game this season), 6 of which came in the short area between the numbers.[Note: Roethlisberger’s 12.2% drop rate on passes short between the numbers is highest in the NFL this season] pic.twitter.com/34VzUAge0l
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 9, 2020
Therein lies the case for Roethlisberger staying another year. With some improved focus at the catch point from his receivers and a remodelled arsenal at running back to boost the ground game, his potentially final season in the league in 2021 could end with a Lombardi Trophy.
Yet that is an expensive chance for the Steelers to take. They are forecast to be $21million over an assumed salary cap of $175m in 2021. Roethlisberger is due to earn $41.25m next year and, taking into account a dead cap charge of $22.25m, the Steelers would save $19m by parting ways with him.
A lack of avenues via which to immediately replace him may tie Pittsburgh’s hands but, for an increasingly immobile quarterback who has been inaccurate and struggled to produce explosive plays downfield, Roethlisberger’s price tag may prove too much to justify.