Something happened to the Pittsburgh Steelers red zone offense around their 10th game of the NFL season. Over their first nine games of the season, the Steelers scored touchdowns on a league-best 78.3% of red zone drives; since that turning point, they’ve ranked an average 16th with touchdowns on just 58.3% of drives.
Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger opened up the year completing 65.6% of his passes over the first nine weeks with an 11:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His red zone passer rating of 112.1 ranked 6th of all quarterbacks with 10+ red zone attempts as he spread the ball to WR Antonio Brown (6 receptions, 3 touchdowns) and TE Jesse James (5 receptions, 3 touchdowns).
Since Pittsburgh’s 10th game, Roethlisberger has completed just 34.4% of his red zone passes, with a 2:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His passer rating of 25.0 is the worst of any quarterback in the entire league, and this includes a pair of games against the Cleveland Browns.
Roethlisberger has become so unreliable that the Steelers don’t even want their quarterback handling the football by the end zone, instead favoring hand offs to RB Le’Veon Bell (understandably).
The Steelers quarterback suffered a knee injury in week 6 against the Miami Dolphins (which is why the Patriots faced back-up QB Landry Jones in week 7), but he was no longer on the injury report by week 10. He has been staring down receivers since he returned to the field and throwing into tight coverage. Roethlisberger suffered another ankle injury on the second-to-last play against the Dolphins during Wild Card Weekend, but was not on the injury report for the Divisional Round.
But these injuries don’t seem to tell the full story with regards to Roethlisberger’s struggles. Perhaps the gradual loss of supporting skill players- WR Martavis Bryant suspended for the season; WR Markus Wheaton on injured reserve; TE Ladarius Green battling migraines and concussions all season; WR Darrius Heyward-Bey and WR Eli Rogers missing a few weeks with more minor problems- caught up to the Steelers offense, while Roethlisberger’s injuries just exacerbated the problems.
To counter the Steelers, the Patriots will put forth one of the best red zone defenses in the NFL. Since that 10th game, the Patriots have allowed just 43.8% of red zone drives to end in touchdowns, the 3rd best rate in the league. While the Patriots clearly benefit from an easy slate of opposing quarterbacks, Roethlisberger has struggled on the road in recent years and could struggle again.