Steelers quarterback Roethlisberger's deep ball in decline
The Steelers are assured of going at least three years between playoff victories, yet they already know what they must do to win their next postseason game.
Getting Ben Roethlisberger back to performing late in the season like he did during their Super Bowl run in the 2010 season is a priority, especially while throwing the deep ball.
It's the one element of Roethlisberger's all-around game that has slipped the most statistically since the Steelers defeated the Jets in the 2010 season AFC Championship.
There were concerns that offensive coordinator Todd Haley's controlled passing offense might take away from Roethlisberger's downfield throwing, but statistics show the now 30-year-old quarterback's deep-ball decline began last season under Bruce Arians.
Roethlisberger's deep throwing — and his ability to deliver winning performances in key late-season games — slipped precipitously during the 2011 and 2012 seasons.
When the Steelers went 14-5 in 2010, counting the playoffs, Roethlisberger was the seventh-best deep passer in the NFL, completing 22 of 54 throws that traveled 20 yards or longer. Factoring in drops by his receivers, he operated at nearly 50 percent efficiency on such passes.
But he fell to No. 26 in 2011, hitting only 21 of 68 passes with five interceptions. He slipped even further this season to No. 30, completing only 11 of 47 deep throws.
Roethlisberger also experienced a definable dropoff in his play after getting hurt; his overall pass completion rate fell by more than 10 percent following his high ankle sprain in December 2011 and his shoulder/rib injuries in November.
“I think the progression (of the offense) would have been a lot better if Ben wouldn't have gotten hurt, but those things happen over the course of the season and you just have to deal with it,” wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said.
However, the Steelers didn't deal well with their franchise quarterback's injuries either season; he was 14-6 before getting hurt and 2-4 after, with the only victories against the Browns. This season, his two critical late-game interceptions against the Cowboys and Bengals led to season-ruining losses.
“The competitive balance in this league is so good that if you're not playing well at the end, you're turning the ball over, you're going to suffer some losses,” former Dallas Cowboys personnel chief Gil Brandt said Wednesday.
After the Steelers ended the season by beating the Browns, 24-10, on Sunday, Roethlisberger said he already knows what he must do in advance of the 2013 season.
“Just get healthy, first and foremost,” Roethlisberger said. “I already started to formulate a plan with (conditioning coach) Garrett Giemont to get my body better and ready to go.”
Roethlisberger's deep-pass decline might have resulted, in part, from a comparable slippage in the running game that often put the quarterback in disadvantageous down-and-distance situations and hindered downfield play-action passing.
The Steelers' average per carry fell from 4.4 yards in 2010 to 3.7 in 2012, their fourth-lowest average since the 1970 NFL merger. They also dropped from No. 11 in rushing in 2010 to 26th this season.
Roethlisberger also dealt with an ever-changing offensive line that used multiple starters — including three right tackles — at every position except left tackle, where Max Starks played every snap.
“It's tough to get cohesion up there when you're rotating guys,” Roethlisberger said.
And if there's a league-wide trend in these playoffs, it's that the teams with younger quarterbacks aren't necessarily struggling. Russell Wilson, Andy Dalton, Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck and Christian Ponder are in; established quarterbacks such as Roethlisberger, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Tony Romo are not.
“When you look at these teams that are left, you could see where every one has a playoff run in them,” Brandt said. “And the quarterbacks are better than before.”
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.