By Matthew Marczi
One of the more curious statistical anomalies that I’ve come across when considering the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers is about the way the team has been scoring points this season—more specifically, who is catching the touchdown passes.
Of Ben Roethlisberger’s 27 touchdown passes thrown this season—and he is the only one to throw a touchdown pass—24 of them have been caught by his wide receivers. Jerricho Cotchery leads the way with nine, while Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders have eight and six, respectively. Derek Moye adds one more.
The other three touchdown have come one each from tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth and fullback Will Johnson. Johnson was only targeted because Brown dropped a pass in the end zone earlier in the drive.
The Steelers have had surprising production from the group, with the wide receivers accounting for 89 percent of the touchdown receptions this season. All four receivers that caught at least one touchdown pass this season marked their career-highs for touchdown receptions in a season—including, of course, Moye.
You would have to go back to at least 1996 to even make an argument for when the Steelers last relied so heavily on their receivers for points through the air, and that argument hinges on whether one considers Kordell Stewart a wide receiver.
That year, Stewart recorded 17 receptions for 293 yards and three touchdowns. But he also carried the ball 39 times for 171 yards and five touchdowns, in addition to attempting 30 passes.
In 1996, Mike Tomczak threw 15 touchdown passes: six to Andre Hastings, one to Ernie Mills, three to Charles Johnson, and two to Yancey Thigpen—all receivers—in addition to the three to Stewart.
If that doesn’t work for you, then you have to go back to 1984 for the last time the receivers accounted for such a high percentage of the offensive production. That year, the combination of Mark Malone, David Woodley, and Scott Campbell threw 25 touchdown passes.
Of those 25, 23 went to receivers—nine to Louis Lipps, 11 to John Stallworth, and three to Weegie Thompson. The other two went to tight end Bennie Cunningham and running back Rich Erenberg.
With all the concern about the receiving corps entering this season minus Mike Wallace, who was the primary scoring source through the air in recent years, the unit admittedly stepped up quite a bit in 2013, scoring more receiving touchdowns than any other receiving unit in franchise history.
What will this unit look like entering next season? It’s hard to say, behind Brown in the starting lineup. Sanders will likely be gone. If Cotchery is retained, it probably won’t be as a starter. Is Markus Wheaton ready to contribute? Might they jump on a potential plug-and-play first-round talent in the draft?