The Pittsburgh Steelers are undefeated no more. The leaders of the AFC North suffered their first loss of the season to the Washington Football Team on the earlier Monday Night Football game yesterday. It was close; the Football Team kicked a field goal with just over two minutes remaining to take a three-point lead, then the first Ben Roethlisberger pass of the Steelers' attempted go-ahead drive was tipped and subsequently intercepted. Dreams of 16-0 disappeared at the same time.
Going slightly defeated instead of undefeated is surely a disappointment for the black and yellow, but it isn't that bad. There are still four weeks of football yet to play and Pittsburgh remains in the driver's seat for one of the two top seeds in the AFC. But Washington exposed the Steelers' biggest obstacle standing between themselves and a deep playoff run: Roethlisberger's inability or refusal to throw the ball deep.
Big Ben threw the rock 53 times against the Football Team and averaged only 5.75 yards per attempt. It marks his third straight game with an average of less than six yards per attempt. Two of those three games were wins, but only one quarterback has averaged less than six yards per attempt on the year (Sam Darnold, averaging 5.9 yards per completion). Roethlisberger has failed to reach that mark four times this season.
Roethlisberger has historically been known as a quarterback willing to take risks and chuck the damn thing down the field whether his receiver is open or not. But in the past, he's always had either an elite wideout or a great speedster to rely upon. From Santonio Holmes to Mike Wallace to Antonio Brown, Roethlisberger has always had his guy that he turned to when he needed to make a play down the field. This year, he doesn't seem to have that luxury. JuJu Smith-Schuster has turned into the king of the five-yard reception, but was never a particularly dangerous deep threat. Diontae Johnson is fast but his 10.1 yards per reception clocks in at No. 100 among all players who have caught a pass this year. In fact, the Pittsburgh receiver with the highest yards per reception is Chase Claypool (13.8 yards per catch, No. 32 in the league), and he hasn't played more than 63 percent of offensive snaps since November 8.
Nobody outside the building knows whether this is by design or the fault of Roethlisberger. He is not a spring chicken at quarterback anymore, turning 38 before the season began and coming off an injury to his throwing arm. But no matter the reason, stats like the ones below lead to a predictable offensive gameplan.
When Roethlisberger won't throw the ball further than 10 yards down the field the vast majority of the time, opposing safeties don't need to worry about anybody getting behind them-- which in turn means they can focus more on preventing yards after the catch (the bread and butter of this Steelers offense) and shutting down the run game. That's a problem because the Steelers' two best wins of the season (against Cleveland and Baltimore) came to fruition in part because Roethlisberger didn't need to do too much. He threw for 162 yards against the Browns and 182 yards in their only matchup against a healthy Ravens team. The ground game helped defeat Cleveland, while their shutdown defense helped beat Baltimore.
The Steelers can win games relying on Roethlisberger. In two consecutive wins against Cincinnati and Dallas earlier this year, the big QB threw for a combined 639 yards and seven touchdowns with no interceptions and a mark of 7.27 yards per attempt. But the question is not if he can throw his team to victory against teams picking in the bottom 5 of the draft this year. It's if he can do it against the best teams in the biggest moments.
He failed to do so yesterday against a Washington team that is 5-7. The run game was unable to get going because he doesn't throw the ball deep. When forced to throw, he still won't throw it deep with any consistency. Whether it's a matter of trust in his young wideouts, gameplan design, or simply waning arm strength, this is a big problem if the Steelers want to make a Super Bowl run. Fortunately for them, they have four games left to figure it out.