The idea for this post came from reading Blitzburgh Blog's analysis of the Steelers Offensive Line. Solid article by the guys over there that we highly recommend checking out. When we were reading it, our gut told us that we felt like the Steelers "Short Yardage Power Ranking" was a bit inflated because we felt like they passed a lot on 3rd and 2. So we decided to do some digging.
If you've ever looked for a single statistic outside of winning percentage that was a good barometer of how good a team was, then Third Down Conversion Rate is probably your best bet. Last year, 6 of the top 8 teams in 3rd down conversions made the playoffs. Five of those teams won their divisions.
The Steelers were 17th in the league with a conversion rate of 39.4%
If you give the Steelers the benefit of the doubt and add in first downs achieved by penalty, the numbers go up slightly to 41%.
Statistically speaking, the Steelers best 3rd down-and-distance scenario last year was 3rd and 3, which they converted at a 72.7% rate. All of the Steelers 3rd and 3 attempts last year were passing plays, and the Steelers only surrendered 1 sack and had no turnovers at this down and distance.
Let's start with the ugly stuff first.
The Steelers surrendered 23 sacks in their 210 3rd downs last year (10.9%). At about 11%, this means the Steelers were getting sacked about once in every nine attempts on third down. The Steelers averaged about 13.5 3rd down attempts per game, meaning they averaged about 1 1/2 third down sacks per game. Yikes.
Six interceptions were thrown on 3rd down last year, 5 by Ben Roethlisberger and 1 by Dennis Dixon in overtime in Baltimore. At 2.9%, this is a number that we can live with. Over a 16 game season, this means that Ben is only likely to throw a 3rd down INT every 2-3 games. With as much as Ben scrambles and has to make plays under pressure, we'll take that.
Negative plays in the running game were much more of a concern last year. Outside of 3rd & 1 and 3rd & 2 situations, the Steelers only ran the ball 5 times on 3rd downs. They converted on runs on 3rd & 5 and 3rd & 9. They failed on runs on 3rd & 10, 3rd & 13, and 3rd & 18 (as should probably be expected). However, the bigger issue we have here is the negative plays in the 3rd and short situations.
On 3rd and 1 the Steelers had 29 attempts, running the ball 23 times. Of those 23 runs, 14 were successful, a 60.9% conversion rate. Of the 9 failed attempts, the Steelers opted to go for it on 4th down 5 times, succeeding on 4 of the 5 tries.
One of the major issues we see with the Steelers 3rd down data from last year is predictability. We didn't take the time to examine data from any other team (because collecting it would have taken far too long). However, here's some interesting numbers. All year, we said that Bruce Arians thought 3rd and 2 was a passing down, and we wondered why he refused to even run the ball occasionally in those situations. Of the 16 3rd and 2 situations the Steelers faced last year, they ran passing plays on 14, only running the ball twice. Both running plays came against Kansas City, and both failed. The second of the two was the dreadful toss play on 3rd and 2 in overtime. Not only does Arians not mix up his play-calling between run and pass on 3rd down, he also makes dreadful play-calling decisions when he does decide to run the ball.
One of Coach Tomlin's favorite phrases is "body of work." Well, looking at some of these numbers, Bruce Arians' body of work shows that unless it's 3rd and 1, there's a 94.4% chance he's throwing the ball. Many coaches out there, including Bill Belicheat, are renowned for being "numbers guys." Well, if you're a "numbers guy" and are playing the percentages, are you even going to worry about the Steelers running the ball on 3rd and 2 or longer? Probably not.
You would think, given this propensity for not running the ball on 3rd down, that Arians would add in some draw plays, the ideal type of play against a defense that is blitzing from the outside and has a lot of defensive backs on the field. Hell, it's no wonder Ben got sacked 23 times on 3rd down. If I'm an opposing defensive coordinator, I'm bringing the heat on every 3rd down play, regardless of down and distance.
Case in point: the Cleveland game. No matter what the situation, the Browns were bringing the heat and playing press coverage on our receivers. Forcing Ben to either go downfield or our line to block. In the 14 3rd downs in that game, Ben was sacked 5 times. The Steelers only converted 3 times, two of which were on the ground. Of the 11 3rd down plays in which the Steelers called passes, here was the stat line: 5 sacks, 2 completions, 4 incompletions, 1 first down. Wow.
If you've been following us for a while, you know we are heavy criticizers of Bruce Arians' body of work. One of the main problems we have with him is that he is far too predictable in his play-calling. In the make-or-break time of drives, when you're looking at a 3rd down, Bruce is going to the air. Now, we're not advocating for the Steelers to run the ball all the time on 3rd downs. But honestly, how many times have you seen the Steelers run a draw play on 3rd down? Hardly ever, and the numbers back that up. The rarity at which the Steelers run the ball on 3rd and 2 or 3rd and 3 situations is staggering: 2 running plays in 27 attempts (7%). Once again, throwing the ball 93% of the time on 3rd and 2 or 3 isn't exactly the way to out-strategize someone. Defenses know what's coming, and they're going to be gameplanning accordingly.
In conclusion, what would we like to see out of the Steelers this year? For starters, more diversity in their play-calling on 3rd downs. Some draw plays on 3rd and medium (4-7) would be nice. Some more runs on 3rd and 2 would be great. Running plays with a fullback in there would almost make us think we were watching the Pittsburgh Steelers again. Finally, and probably most importantly, cutting down on the negative plays on 3rd down. 23 sacks, 6 interceptions, and 1 fumble mean that there were negative plays on about 1 of every 7 3rd downs the Steelers faced. At 13.5 3rd downs per game, this means we saw about 2 negative plays per game on 3rd down last year. We definitely want to see this cut down.
The new and hopefully improved offensive line should help make these numbers a bit better, but at the end of the day, the coaches still have to make the right play calls to put the players in position to make the plays to win games.