After two weeks of the NFL season, 11 undefeated teams remained. I decided to classify them as Contenders or Pretenders. Six got a Contender title: the Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, Baltimore Ravens, Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, and Buffalo Bills. One got an In-Betweener: the Arizona Cardinals. And four got the Pretender tag: the Chicago Bears, Tennessee Titans, Las Vegas Raiders, and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Of the Steelers, I wrote that I was too worried about what I’d “seen from Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback to call the Steelers legit contenders. Among the likely heavyweight AFC playoff teams, Roethlisberger is clearly the worst quarterback of the bunch… his arm looks weak and his process in the pocket is panicked, as he’s never been so limited as a thrower. The Steelers were a playoff-caliber team without Roethlisberger back there, and I do think he makes them better, just not enough for me to be convinced this team has what it takes.”
Of course, the Steelers didn’t stop at 2-0. They rose all the way to 11-0, with wins over Cleveland, Tennessee, and Baltimore (twice) as they maintained the league’s final unbeaten record through the fall and into the winter. Then they met another playoff-bound squad—the Washington Football Team!—and took their first loss on the chin. It was an ugly day on offense: their leading rusher had 15 yards, they had six drops as a team, and Roethlisberger relied on quick and shallow targets (6.2 yards average depth of target on 2.22 seconds to throw) to replicate the running game and beat the rampant Washington pass rush.
That model had won the Steelers 11 games on the season, of course. Through their undefeated streak, no quarterback released the ball quicker than Roethlisberger, with almost 75% of his dropbacks ending in a pass attempt quicker than 2.5 seconds. Beyond 2.5 seconds, his completion percentage dropped from 72% to 55%; his TD-to-INT ratio from 19:2 to 6:4; all of his sacks came after 2.5 seconds.
Quick passes inherently preclude deep passes. It takes time for receivers to get down the field, and quarterbacks have to hold the ball and invite pressure as they get there. The 38-year-old Roethlisberger, lacking even the modest athleticism he used in his youth to escape pressure, could not be successfully schemed out of the pocket or expected to extend plays. And if he couldn’t buy that time, the Steelers offensive line—28th in ESPN’s Pass Block Win Rate—needed to buy it for him.
But Roethlisberger still got his fair share of deep passes in: 12.8% of his attempts went 20-plus air yards downfield, which is an above-average number. But the character of his deep routes was important: Roethlisberger attempted more “go” patterns than all other quarterbacks besides Tom Brady. On quick vertical routes up the seam, along the sideline, or on the back-shoulder, Roethlisberger could manufacture chunk gains without holding onto the football too long.
But if that’s all you can find in the deep passing game, you’re committing to low-percentage throws against one-on-one coverage. On the route distribution, the Steelers largely depended on rookie Chase Claypool and WR4 James Washington for those targets—not their top wideouts in JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson. Deep posts, climbs, and overs—crossing patterns that could attack safety help and bust coverages—were off the table.
So they lost to Washington because they didn’t want to push the ball deep, couldn’t run the football, and dropped some of the underneath routes they needed to catch to keep the sticks moving. But the formula that had won them 11 games would surely keep winning them more, right?
The Steelers are 1-5 over their last six games including last night’s playoff loss to the Cleveland Browns. Immediately down 28-0 after an errant snap, a three-and-out, and two interceptions on those critical underneath targets, the Steelers had dug themselves a hole from which they didn’t have the firepower to climb out of. Roethlisberger attempted 68 passes and only six of them went more than 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
Roethlisberger remained largely the same player on the Steelers’ losing streak as he was on their winning streak. 12% of his passes went deep, 75% of his dropbacks ended quicker than 2.5 seconds, and no passer got rid of the ball faster. The unsustainable efficiency of the early season gave way to a growing sample size of games and the combined wisdom of defensive coordinators, conspiring week after week to play their safeties low, let their linebackers collision shallow crossers, and challenge the Steelers to punish their arrogance with targets over the top.
Blame was shared among star players and coaches. Drops continued as Roethlisberger delivered fast and inaccurate balls to receivers terrified of punishing blows from waiting linebackers. James Conner’s injury weakened the already spiraling backfield. Smith-Schuster stopped dancing. Roethlisberger himself admitted after the Washington game that he needed to be better.
That’s all well and good in-season—but we’re out of the season now, the Steelers exposed as the pretenders that many diagnosed them as. It wasn’t because their defense fell off—rather, it survived major injury and stayed effective. It wasn’t because their wideouts never settled into roles. They could have used a better outside corner and running back and a guard or two, but above all else, they needed an impactful, dangerous passer as a quarterback. All legit contenders do. This season, they never had one.
Now comes the offseason. The Steelers have major rising free agents (Smith-Schuster, LT Alejandro Villanueva, OL Matt Feiler, DT Tyson Alualu, EDGE Bud Dupree, and CBs Mike Hilton and Cam Sutton) with precious little cap space to spend on them. A big-money quarterback acquisition may be out of the question—but entering next season with Mason Rudolph as your best “QB of the future” bet is similarly absurd an idea. Roethlisberger’s $22M dead cap hit next season makes that proposition even trickier to navigate. Outside of the top 20 in the draft order, the Steelers will have to take a swing on Alabama quarterback Mac Jones or Florida quarterback Kyle Trask to solve their problem in April.
The Steelers lost to the Browns for several reasons. With a healthy Devin Bush, a good snap from Maurkice Pouncey, and a bit more luck on tipped passes, they could have won that game outright. But despite the individual details of any given loss—the Washington game that started their skid, the Browns game that finished it, or any contest in between—their fall was foreseeable from quite a ways out for one major reason: the quarterback.
Roethlisberger limits this Steelers offense, and that physical ceiling won’t be lifted anytime soon. The Steelers maximized the hand he dealt them this year, but if a home loss in the wild-card round is Roethlisberger’s peak, finding a new starting quarterback for 2021 is non-negotiable.