What Can We Expect from Ben Roethlisberger Going Forward?

Ben-Roethlisberger

Joe Sargent/Getty Images Ben Roethlisberger #7 of the Pittsburgh Steelers throws a pass during the first quarter against the Houston Texans at Heinz Field on September 27, 2020.

Are you a glass half empty or glass half full kind of Pittsburgh Steelers fan?

If you’re glass half full you look at Ben Roethlisberger’s statistics in the first three games of the 2020 season and think: his performance has been better than anyone had a right to expect, and he’s still shaking off the rust from missing almost all of the 2019 season.

A glass half empty fan might be concerned about relatively subtle warning signs that age may be catching up to the 38-year-old Steelers quarterback—and worried that a steep, Drew Brees-like decline might be just around the corner.


Art Rooney II on Ben Roethlisberger’s Play in 2020

For his part, Steelers owner and team president Art Rooney II has been happy—if not pleasantly surprised—with what he’s seen from Big Ben thus far in 2020.

In an interview on 102.5 FM’s WDVE Morning Show last week Rooney said, “All things considered, it’s pretty amazing when you think about the kind of surgery he had,” noting that Roethlisberger told him his arm feels stronger since he had surgery to repair three flexor tendons that tore off the bone. Roethlisberger’s receivers have noticed a difference too, with second-year WR Diontae Johnson saying Big Ben’s arm has looked “way better” than last year.

“I didn’t really believe him when he started saying [his arm strength has improved], but I think it may be true,” added Rooney. “It’s really remarkable, the arm strength that he has. And he’s still knocking off some rust, too, now, and I think he’ll continue to get better like everybody else as the season goes on.”


Ben Roethlisberger’s 2020 Stats

As for the numbers, those are looking good so far. Roethlisberger has completed 73 of 109 passes for 777 yards with seven touchdowns and one interception through the first three games of the 2020 season. That’s a completion percentage of 67 percent, better than his career average of 64.4 percent. He has also posted a passer rating of 105.2, far above his career rating of 94.2.

Moreover, the most important number this year is that Pittsburgh is 3-0 heading into its Week 5 home game against the Philadelphia Eagles.


So What’s the Problem?

Some NFL observers have noted that Roethlisberger is nowhere near as good throwing the ball down the field as he once was, and it’s not a problem that started in 2019.

Roethlisberger’s career yards per attempt is at 7.8 YPA, with a 5.7 YPA average in the six quarters he played in 2019 and a 7.1 YPA average thus far in 2020. But you have to go back to 2015 to find a season in which he exceeded his career average.

As Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus noted in his recent article on the biggest weakness of all 32 starting quarterbacks, Roethlisberger’s “67.8 [PFF] passing grade on intermediate (10-19 yard) throws since 2018 ranks just 39th out of 47 qualifiers, and that’s an area in which he used to dominate.”

Anthony Treash of PFF also had some interesting thoughts about Roethlisberger in his recent piece on the most overrated and underrated teams in the NFL entering 2020.

“His rate of negatively graded throws went from the fifth-best in 2017 to the fifth-worst in 2018. And he did that in addition to posting the lowest average depth of target in his career by half a yard,” wrote Treash. And “on throws of 10 or more yards downfield in 2018, Roethlisberger had his worst negatively graded throw rate in the PFF era and the third-worst mark in the NFL—ranking ahead of only Mitchell Trubisky and Josh Rosen.”

Those are developments that bear watching, especially in light of how Drew Brees is faring at age 41. As Palazzolo notes in the above-referenced QB weaknesses article, the New Orleans Saints quarterback isn’t even trying to throw the ball downfield anymore.

“Only 4.4% of Brees’ attempts in 2020 have been beyond 20 yards, and this comes just one year after he attempted a deep pass on only 8.2% of his attempts to finish 35th out of 36 qualifiers. This season, Brees is just 1-for-3 for 46 yards on deep passes, with his one completion coming courtesy of a busted coverage up the sideline,” advises Palazzolo.

In early September Rooney said the Steelers were “open to extending Ben Roethlisberger’s contract” (which expires after the 2021 season). But the organization may want to think carefully before doing that, especially in light of what the Saints have seen with Brees since he turned 40.

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