It is Thursday evening, November 8 (ten days ago)
On their first play from scrimmage, the Pittsburgh Steelers lined up with receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Washington spread wide to the left of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Carolina cornerback Captain Munnerlyn initially lined up over Smith-Schuster as if in man coverage. But as the play developed and Washington curled into the flat along the sideline, Munnerlyn dropped Smith-Schuster and moved to his zone assignment where Washington was.
One little problem. The Panthers were not in zone. They were in man coverage – and Juju Smith-Schuster was his man.
In the very same fraction of a second that Munnerlyn turned his attention to Washington, Roethlisberger released his perfectly thrown deep pass, hitting Juju in stride just before the Carolina 45-yard line, on his way to a game opening 75-yard touchdown.
That would set the tone.
The Carolina Panthers came into the contest 6-2 and looking like one of the NFL’s elite teams. But they walked into a buzz-saw in Pittsburgh leaving the Steel City on the bad end of a 51-14 score (gamebook) (box score).
The Steelers had it all working. The defense limited Carolina to 242 yards, while sacking Cam Newton 5 times and forcing 2 turnovers. The running attack rang up 138 yards and a touchdown.
But for all that, the day belonged to Ben Roethlisberger and his indomitable (at least it was a week ago Thursday) passing attack.
Primarily a zone defense team, Carolina realized that they couldn’t sit in their zones in this game or Ben would eat them alive. So they opened their defensive playbook. They showed man, but then played zone. They showed zone but then played man. On the touchdown pass to Vance McDonald (and Ben would throw 5 touchdowns on the night) Vance came in motion across the formation and no one followed him – a clear indication of zone. Yet once the play began, McDonald was man covered by star Panther linebacker Luke Kuechly with safety help over the top. Even that wasn’t enough, as McDonald got behind both in the back of the end zone.
Throughout the game, Carolina would line up six or more potential pass rushers across the line of scrimmage, dropping most of them into coverage once the play began. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Roethlisberger’s performance was how quickly he deciphered the defensive scheme and how rapidly he delivered the football.
With 3:50 left in the first half, Pittsburgh faced a third-and-six on their own 29-yard line. Six Panthers crowded the line of scrimmage, but three droped off after the snap. One of those dropping out – DE/LB Julius Peppers hadn’t taken three steps into his coverage before the football whistled past his ear to receiver Ryan Switzer who had beaten the entire Panther defense to the soft spot in the zone just behind Peppers.
And so it went.
With just under five minutes left in the third quarter, Pittsburgh faced a third-and-eight from its own 37-yard line. The Steelers lined up with three receivers bunched to the right, and Carolina showed man coverage. As Roethlisberger prepared to receive the ball, Kuechly and Munnerlyn crept up to the line – again showing six potential blitzers. When Ben dropped his hands, Kuechly and Munnerlyn fell back to their previous positions. Luke then took another step in, but backed off again – prompting Roethlisberger to change the play.
After spending most of the game bluffing the blitz, Carolina actually came this time. Both Kuechly and Munnerlyn rushed, with end Mario Addison dropping back into coverage. Instead of man, the Panthers played zone (with just six defenders) behind the blitz. Still, Ben and the Steelers had the answer. Running back Jaylen Samuels scooted across the formation to pick up Munnerlyn – who was running free to the quarterback. With the blitz answered, Roethlisberger waited for the zones to expand, at which point he dumped the ball off to McDonald in the short middle of the field. Vance gathered the pass in and turned up field to complete a 19-yard gain and another first down.
Pittsburgh was 8-of-11 converting third downs that night.
Ben’s dominance reflected in his passing line for the game. He finished completing 22 of 25 passes for 328 yards and the 5 touchdowns. His efforts earned him the maximum passer rating of 158.3.
Maximum but Not Perfect
Over and over you will hear announcers refer to this magic number (158.3) as a perfect rating. That, of course, is clearly not true. Whatever else you might want from a perfect night, you would at least want all of the passes completed. That 158.3 number does not in any sense reflect perfection. Through the bizarre intricacies of the formula itself, that score happens to be the highest that it will award – the maximum score, if you will.
This is a discussion I’ve been intending to have for some time.
The passer rating system as we know it today was created prior to the 1973 season. Previously, passers had been rated either by total passing yards or completion percentage. And no previous system took into account interceptions thrown
The 1973 system, then, attempted to achieve an equal balance between four averages. It takes completion percentage, average yards per pass, touchdown percentage and interception percentage into consideration. The guts of the calculation are as follows:
5*(Completion Percentage + (5*avg yards per pass) + 2.5 + (4*touchdown percentage) – (5*interception percentage))/6.
This is certainly complex enough. But then each of the individual categories is randomly capped. (perhaps to prevent any one area from overweighing the others?) The completion percentage category is capped at 77.5%. In the prior Thursday’s game, Ben completed 88%, so the last 10.5% of his completion percentage didn’t help his rating. The cap in average per attempted pass is 12.5. Ben averaged 13.12 in this game – essentially the system disregarded his last 15.5 passing yards. The touchdown maximum is 11.9%. With Roethlisberger throwing an even 20% of his passes for touchdowns that meant that his last two touchdowns helped his rating not at all. Zero, of course, is the maximum best score for interception percentage. This category is also capped on the high end, as anything more than 9.5% won’t hurt you any further. According to the system, throwing a third of your passes for interceptions is no worse than throwing a tenth of your passes to the wrong side.
Why the caps were put into place is a mystery. Without the artificially placed maximums, Ben would have scored a 196.8 against Carolina. Without the imposed maximums, the highest possible score would be 831.3 (a scenario where every pass thrown results in a 99-yard touchdown), and the lowest possible score would be -414.6 (a scenario where every pass thrown is intercepted).
For any normal use, the accepted range between 0 and 158.3 is sufficient. But the only people who call the 158.3 figure “perfect” are those that do not understand it.
Ben was really good that Thursday night. He was pretty close to perfect. But not perfect.