The Steelers may be 3-2, but the mood in Pittsburgh is dour. Ben Roethlisberger is coming off a five-interception fiasco against the Jacksonville Jaguars, the latest and worst in a run of lukewarm performances this season. Plenty in Steeler nation are beginning to question whether the 35-year-old Roethlisberger has hit the wall. One of those people is the actual Ben Roethlisberger.
The numbers are definitely not pretty, especially when compared to his career averages. That interception festival he hosted in Week 5 torched his passer rating, which has sunk to 75.8 and is way below his 94.1 career rating entering the season. More alarming than the spate of picks is that Roethlisberger’s yards per attempt, which for his career prior to this year stood at a near all-time-best 7.9, is a career-low 6.5 so far this season.
But a closer look at the numbers shows there’s good reason to believe that this bad stretch is just that: a bad stretch. Here are the key reasons Steelers fans should still have hope — regardless of what Roethlisberger himself is saying or thinking.
History is on his side
We identified several quarterbacks who struggled in the first five games of their age-35 seasons when compared to what they did through age 34.1 In almost every case, these QBs bounced back to something much closer to their established levels. To be sure, there’s some selection bias at play here — most of these quarterbacks are generally excellent, because erratic and unreliable passers do not usually last in the NFL until they are 35.
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Among the passers on this list, the average QB rating improved from 71.2 in the first five games to 86.0 for the remainder of the season. Their yards per attempt also rebounded, from a pedestrian 6.7 to a solid 7.4, on average. If Roethlisberger improves at the same rate, his passer rating for the rest of the year would be 88.4 and his yards per attempt would bounce up to 7.2. But Hall of Famers Dan Fouts and Jim Kelly beat those averages, so it’s certainly possible that Roethlisberger could outperform them as well.
Roethlisberger is still doing Roethlisberger things
While the box scores have been ugly, many of Roethlisberger’s underlying numbers have been typical for his career. His accuracy hasn’t declined significantly: Only 17.5 percent of his throws have been off target, which is only a shade worse than the 16.9 percent rate he posted in the regular season from 2014 to 2016. And on deep passes,2 Roethlisberger has actually been a hair more accurate, 28.2 percent of his throws have been off target this year compared to 28.3 percent in the past three years.
You would think that as Roethlisberger ages, he would start to lose his trademark ability to move outside the pocket on broken plays and find something down the field. But in a limited sample so far this year, he has still been effective when chased from the pocket — he has posted a 101.2 passer rating on just nine dropbacks in these situations this year compared with 124.2 on 93 dropbacks in the prior three seasons.
One logical explanation for Roethlisberger’s poor start would be that something was amiss with his offensive line. Perhaps he’s under more pressure than usual? But in fact, the Steelers QB is tied with Oakland’s Derek Carr for the least pressured quarterback in the league this year — both have been under threat on just 15.1 percent of dropbacks. And that’s the way it has been for a while in Pittsburgh; Roethlisberger had the second-lowest pressure rate in the league (behind Peyton Manning) from 2014-16.
So if Roethlisberger hasn’t suddenly become inaccurate and he’s not suddenly facing more pressure, the Steelers’ offensive problems may extend beyond the QB and O-line.
Bell and Brown are not helping matters
The real explanation for Roethlisberger’s poor start may be the decline in efficiency of his two top targets, wideout Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell.
On Roethlisberger’s 62 targets to Brown this year, his passer rating has dropped to just 71, down from 112.2 on 480 targets in the past three years. And while it’s hard to tell from a passer rating whether the quarterback or receiver is more to blame, other stats provide some evidence that the 29-year-old Brown is not quite himself this year. According to the NFL, defenses are playing Brown much more tightly at the snap — his average cushion has declined from 5.2 to 4.5 yards, one of the lowest among all receivers. But he’s not making defensive backs pay by running by them, as his average separation is unchanged (2.9 yards).
Bell’s receiving ability, meanwhile, is downright ordinary this year. The prior three years, Roethlisberger had 105 passer rating when throwing to Bell. This year, it’s 85.4. Bell is averaging 3.85 yards before contact and just 1.48 after. The prior three years, those figures were 6.64 and 2.20. It’s hard to blame Roethlisberger for Bell being unable to get open and make defenders miss.
Bell’s ineffective performance so far has also meant that Roethlisberger can’t use him as a safety valve, which has crushed the QB’s stats against the blitz. In the past three seasons, Roethlisberger had a 96 rating on 381 dropbacks against blitzing defenses — mostly because the underneath pass to Bell was so effective. This year, his rating on those plays is down to 54.6, the lowest in the league.
Sunday, Roethlisberger travels to Kansas City to face the unbeaten Chiefs, who have been winning more with offense than defense, which may mean his receivers will be able to find a little more space. And Roethlisberger’s attitude about his ability to perform has undergone a 180-degree turn. “They can question me. I don’t question myself,” he said, three days after his “Maybe I don’t have it anymore” interview. “I think you guys are much more panicked than we are.”
And unless Roethlisberger is a huge outlier and suddenly craters at age 35, or Bell and Brown have completely lost their ability to be dominant receiving threats, it seems there actually is little reason for Steelers fans to panic.