Thursday, September 19, 2013

Problems in the Steelers Passing Game

Everyone seems to have their own solution to the Steelers offensive woes. If you decided to waterboard your eardrums and listen to sports talk radio this week, you have probably heard a myriad of solutions. Run the ball more. Throw the ball more. Let Ben run the show. Fire Todd Haley. Fire Mike Tomlin. Trade Ben. Blow up the ship and start over. I've heard all of these opinions at one point or another over the last few days.

One of the consistent refrains from people who are calling for the Steelers to throw the ball more is for us to throw the ball deep more often. There are numerous problems with this prescription. First, the Steelers do not have an offensive line that is capable of protecting Ben for long enough for the receivers to run deep routes. This has essentially eliminated the use of the deep in route or "dig" or "dagger" route.

Seen here, the "dig" route can be effective against both zone and man coverage as the slot receiver going deep helps to clear out the safeties so that the flanker has space to cut underneath into open space. This was a staple of the Arians offense and the Whisenhunt offense before that and was one of the routes Hines Ward ran exceptionally well. Simply put, the Steelers do not have an offensive line capable of holding back pressure for a long enough period of time for this pattern to work.

The second problem with the theory that the Steelers need to throw deep more is that the Steelers are already throwing deep, they are just not connecting. For purposes of this post, I'm using the deep and short passing data from Pro Football Reference which defines a "deep" pass as over 15 yards and a "short" pass as under 15 yards. Through two games the Steelers have attempted 20 deep passes and connected only 5 times with no touchdowns, only 1 pass interference call and 1 interception. On their 5 receptions the Steelers have tallied 126 yards, but have 0 touchdowns and 2 negative plays (an interception against Tennessee and Paulson's fumble against Cincinnati). Ben Roethlisberger is only completing 25% of his deep passes through two weeks. The Steelers have thrown deep on 20 of their 70 pass attempts (28%).

By contrast, Ben Roethlisberger has been much better throwing short passes. He is 36 of 50 for 316 yards and 2 touchdowns (with 1 interception on a pass that was tipped by Cotchery). Big Ben is completing 72% of his short passes.

These numbers should be expected in an offense that (theoretically) is designed for the quarterback to get the ball out quickly into the hands of his receivers. Those who say that the Steelers need to throw deep more are isolating the wrong variable within the passing game as a potential solution. Given the relative data, more deep passing would mean a negligible difference in passing data. Assuming 35 passing attempts (which has been Ben's average this year), throwing 4 more deep passes (and therefore 4 less short passes) would result in no changes to Ben's passing yardage, but a decrease of 2 completions.

The better variable for analysis is passes in the middle of the field. When throwing to the deep middle, Ben is 2 for 2 for 41 yards. He is 3 for 18 for 85 yards on all other deep balls (4.7 yards per attempt). When throwing short, Ben is 10 for 15 for 115 yards (7.7 yards per attempt). On all other short passes he is 26 of 35 for 201 yards (5.7 yards per attempt). All told, he is 12 of 17 for 156 yards down the middle and 29 of 53 for 286 yards when throwing to the left or right. Ben is averaging 9.2 yards per attempt down the middle of the field in contrast to 5.4 yards per attempt when throwing to either side. The Steelers are gaining almost 4 yards per attempt more when they throw down the middle than when they throw outside the numbers, yet only 24% of Ben's passing attempts have been over the middle of the field.

One would think that the Steelers limited use of tight ends is the primary factor in the low percentage for passes in the middle of the field. Hopefully the pending return of Heath Miller will help to improve the Steelers passing game. However, even in the absence of Heath, the Steelers have not effectively utilized the middle of the field. Only rarely have receivers run slant routes or drag routes or crossing routes through the middle of the field. These routes are designed so that the quarterback can hit the receiver while he is in motion and enables the receiver to pick up yards after the catch. Last season, the Steelers gained almost half of their passing yardage (1925 of 4012 yards, 48%) on yards after the catch. This year, they have gained 42.8% of their passing yardage after the catch. One could attribute this to the loss of Mike Wallace, but Wallace only gained a third (33%) of his yards after the catch. In fact, Wallace finished ahead of only Burress and Cotchery last season in percentage of yards after the catch. It was Heath Miller, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders who accounted for most of the YAC yards last season.

Because running backs tend to catch the ball behind the line of scrimmage, many of them actually end up with more Yards After the Catch than actual yards gained.

2012 by YAC% (Non-RBs)

This gets back to the play-calling design of the offense. It is almost impossible to gain extra yards after the catch if you are catching the ball either on the sideline or standing still. The best way to get yards after the catch is to catch the ball while you are running. The Steelers biggest offensive play against the Bengals was a slant route to Emmanuel Sanders that he was able to turn upfield through the middle of the Bengals defense and take down to the 1 yard line. The big 33-yard play to Antonio Brown that was nullified by the phantom tripping penalty also came on a shallow cross where Brown was able to make a play with the ball in his hand. The Steelers passing woes are not because of the "dink and dunk" offense but rather because of the direction of the offense. The offense is focused on throwing the ball outside of the numbers, not down the middle of the field. Even when going deep, only 2 of 20 deep balls have been attempted down the middle. Making throws outside the numbers gives the defense the assistance of the sideline that can act as an extra defender to nullify completions and almost entirely takes the yards-after-catch aspect out of the passing game. If the Steelers are going to turn things around against the Bears, they need to start utilizing the middle of the field and actually letting their receivers make plays with the ball in their hands.

No comments: