Pittsburgh’s New Two-Second Rule

I say the name Ben Roethlisberger.  Then I ask you to close your eyes and tell me the first image that comes to your mind.

Big Ben is in his seventeenth NFL season – and, in fact, just won his 150th start last Sunday.  He has 13 additional playoff wins, including two Super Bowls.  So, when I ask for the first image that comes to mind, I realize that that is covering a lot of ground.

If you’re like me, though, one of the very first images is of Ben lofting a perfect 50-yard strike to a fleet receiver (Antonio Brown, maybe?) who has about a step on his defender.  During his long career, Roethlisberger has been regarded as one of football’s best deep arms.

Yards per completion is one way to gage a quarterback’s up-the-field performance.  In general, the deeper you throw, the higher your yards per completion.  The NFL average (this year) is 11.2 yards per every completion.  For his career, Big Ben is averaging 12.1 yards per completion, leading the NFL in this category twice with 14.2 y/c in 2005 and 13.3 in 2010.  Of his 376 regular season touchdown passes, 88 have covered more than 30 yards, and 4 have covered more than 90 yards.

If this is your memory of Big Ben, then maybe (like me), you have been a little lost watching the Steeler games this year.  Third year offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner has re-invented the way Pittsburgh does business.  The long, up-the-field passes are fewer and farther between.  The goal now is for Ben to get the ball out of his hands quickly. He takes the snap (mostly from the shotgun) finds the first open receiver, and gets the ball out of his hands.

Among the advanced passing numbers tracked by pro-football reference (on this page) are average time in the pocket (before the throw comes out) and average intended air yards (average of how many yards in the air all of the passes go – whether completed or not).  In the “pocket time” category, you’ll find Big Ben tied with Teddy Bridgewater for shortest pocket time in the NFL (2.1).  He ranks twenty-ninth in intended air yards – at just 6.6.  In 2018 he averaged 7.8 air yards per pass.  In his abbreviated 2019 season, he averaged 9.3.  On Sunday against Tennessee he averaged 5.4.

So far this year, Roethlisberger is averaging 9.9 yards per completed pass.  He has never finished a season under 10.0 before.

The reasons behind the change could be varied.  It could be intended to keep Ben – now 38 years old – from taking hits.  It could be that the Steeler brain-trust envision this concept as the best usage of their personnel.  As far as speedy receivers go, Pittsburgh certainly has its quiver full.  Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington and the so-far unheralded Diontae Johnson can all get from point A to point B in a blur.  Perhaps, instead of having Roethlisberger standing in the pocket waiting for one of them to get 50 yards downfield – where a completion might be a 60% likelihood, it might be argued that a quick, high-percentage short pass to one of these speedsters with room to run is, in fact, the most efficient use of this talent.

Even as I continue to wonder if this is really the best offensive fit for Pittsburgh, I will admit that the numbers – so far – enthusiastically support the concept.  Big Ben entered last week’s game against Tennessee carrying a 109.1 passer rating.  If maintained, that would be the highest of his career.  The team also entered the game fourth in scoring offense.

Well, OK.  But Pittsburgh’s first 5 opponents this season don’t exactly feature some of the NFL’s most feared defenses.  The Steelers began the season conquering the New York Giants (1-6 so far), Denver (2-4), Houston (1-6), Philadelphia (2-4-1) and the 5-2 Cleveland team.  The Titans team that they faced off against Sunday also brought a 5-0 record to the table and were considered their stiffest challenge to date.  And for the first half of the game, everything seemed to align as the numbers suggested they should.

Again and again Ben quickly found open receivers underneath Tennessee’s pliant zone defenses.  Pittsburgh would score on each of its first four possessions, taking a 24-7 lead into the locker room.  As for Ben, up to the point where he heaved a last second interception on a Hail Mary attempt, he was carrying a 116.7 rating (17 for 24 for 160 yards and 2 TDs).  What’s not to like.

The second half, however, was very different.

Chastened by their first half problems, the Titans found ways to use the Steelers’ ultra-quick passing attack against them.  They played a bit more man coverage, and played it tighter, denying the receivers a quick opening.  When they went to zone, they tightened up the short zones, making sure tackles that eliminated most of the run after the catch.  And they blitzed more and more creatively – the pressure speeding up the process.  This was maybe the most effective aspect of what they did.  The pressure caused some bad throws and some bad decisions.  Pressure, by the way, is something they are pretty much guaranteed to see against Baltimore.  The Ravens blitz more than anyone in the league (46.1%).

The changes showed in Roethlisberger’s second half line – his 15 completions (in 24 attempts) accounting for just 108 yards with 2 interceptions against no touchdown passes, resulting in a 38.2 passer rating.

There are some things I see happening that are, I think, traceable to the new offense.  On Sunday Ben threw the ball 49 times.  Of these almost 50 throws, only 10 were farther than 10 yards up the field.  Ben completed only 3 of these – with 2 interceptions.  One of the great deep-ball throwers of his generation, Roethlisberger threw the ball more than twenty yards up field just 3 times.  He was 0-for-3 with the 2 interceptions.

That final interception came on his second deepest throw of the game – about 28 yards over the deep middle.  Smith-Schuster was trying to split the middle of a cover-two, with Jayon Brown running down the seam with him.  It would have been a 50-50 chance at best (Johnson, running clear underneath, would have been the better option), but Ben didn’t even allow JuJu the opportunity.  The throw sailed to the other side of the defender, putting Brown in between the ball and the receiver.  In about the middle of the end zone, the three converged.  Brown deflected the ball and Amani Hooker gathered it in.

It occurs to me that if you don’t air the ball out on something of a regular basis, your ability to do so suffers somewhat.  There’s a muscle memory aspect of the 50-yard bomb that may diminish if it’s not employed with some regularity in game situations.

A second point.  According to Ben’s passing chart (available here), 25 of his 49 throws went into roughly the same area – left of the hash and within 17 yards of the line of scrimmage.  It’s the kind of concentration that suggests the quarterback had decided where he was going to throw the ball before it was even snapped.

I saw him do this more than once.  With 3:04 left in the first half, and Pittsburgh ahead 14-7, Ben faced a second-and-5 on the Tennessee 25.  Again, Johnson was open in the flat, but Roethlisberger had already decided that he was throwing this one to Eric Ebron up the left sideline – which he did even after Tennessee’s defense defined itself as a pure zone, leaving Johnathan Joseph sitting there waiting for the ball.  This one wasn’t intercepted, but could have been.

A two-second passing attack gives itself to plays like this.  The pressure on the quarterback to make lightning fast decisions encourages him to subconsciously pre-determine where the ball will go.

As a final point, I noticed several times that the receivers stopped working to get open after a few seconds.  This was particularly true against the zone defenses.  Again, in an offense where the ball is almost always out after about 2 seconds, it’s human nature to let up a little after that normal time had elapsed.

I guess my question here is, does an offense have to be all one way?  Can’t they be both?  Along with all their catch-and-release plays, can’t they sprinkle in a few old fashion deep heaves?  If nothing else, it might open up a little more space for the catch-and-run plays.

A Word on the Defense

The most anticipated part of this game was the match-up between the Titan’s second-ranked offense and the Steelers’ second-ranked defense – specifically between Tennessee’s fifth-ranked, Derrick Henry-led running game against Pittsburgh’s second-ranked run defense.

The game didn’t disappoint.  Henry did have his moments, but at 75 yards on 20 carries he was very much contained.  The enduring memory from the game, though, was Robert Spillane pouring through the line at top speed and plowing into Henry at the goal line to deny him a touchdown.  For the moment, anyway.  It was about as close to lighting up Derrick Henry as you will ever see.

Next up, of course, are the Ravens and their league-leading running attack.  This should also be a great watch.

And the Titans

Valiant comeback aside, Tennessee’s last second field goal attempt sailed wide right and they went home with a disappointing 27-24 defeat (gamebook) (summary).  Even so, the energetic performance of its defense in the second half has to be very encouraging.  In spite of winning their first 5 games, they had allowed 30 or more points to Jacksonville, Minnesota and Denver.  As they faced off against the Steelers, they carried the twenty-eighth ranked pass defense.

But they held Pittsburgh to 3 points, 9 first downs and 134 total yards in the second half, providing a measure of hope for the rest of the season.  If Tennessee is hopeful of making another deep run in the playoffs, they will need THAT defense to show up more often.

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