- In 2009 the Steelers were 17th in the league with a 3rd down conversion rate of 39.4%.
- The Steelers surrendered 23 sacks on 3rd down (11% of all 3rd downs).
- The Steelers converted 61% of 3rd and 1 running plays.
- The Steelers only ran twice on 3rd and 2, failing to convert both times.
If there is a better predictor of team success in the NFL than 3rd down conversions, I challenge you to find it. In 2009 and 2010, 6 of the top 8 teams in the league in 3rd down conversions made the playoffs. The Steelers went from a mediocre 39.4% to 43.1%, good for 6th in the league. This was a marked improvement from 2010, and it would be great to see the Steelers continue this trend. For reference, the Saints were first in the league in 3rd down conversions at 48.8%.
The Steelers protection didn't fare as well on 3rd downs, surrendering 26 sacks (11.8% of all 3rd downs). Of the 4 quarterbacks that took snaps for the Steelers, Roethlisberger was sacked 19 times in 165 3rd downs (11.5%), Batch 4 times in 31 3rd downs (12.9%), Dixon twice in 18 3rd downs (11.1%), and Leftwich once in 5 3rd downs (20%). On the whole, the Steelers surrendered 43 sacks last year, meaning that 60.5% of the Steelers sacks came on 3rd downs. Ouch.
Sticking with the negative results in the data, the Steelers faced a LOT of 3rd and long situations last year. In fact, almost half the time (108 of 221, 49%) the Steelers had 7 or more yards to go on 3rd down. The Steelers did manage to convert a third (36 of 108) of these situations. However, this doesn't make up for the fact that the Steelers were basically forced into passing situations half the time. The Steelers did run 5 times on 3rd and 7+, but none of those were successful. The obvious assumption here would be that these 3rd and 7+ runs came when Ben was not in the game and the Steelers were looking to protect their quarterbacks. Two of the five runs came without Ben at quarterback. One occurred with Dixon and one with Batch at the helm, the other three with Big Ben.
Even though there were more sacks in 2010, the 3rd down turnovers dropped, from 6 interceptions in 2009 to just 2 in 2010. Interestingly, they both happened on 3rd and 4 (One thrown by Ben and Batch each). Ben and Dixon each put the ball on the turf once as well, but those fumbles were included as sacks, so on the whole the Steelers slightly improved from 30 negative plays on 3rd down in 2009 to 28 negative plays in 2010.
The one other somewhat troubling stat that we saw when we looked into this year's data was QB scrambles. The Quarterbacks were definitely not as secure as we would like them to be in the pocket. Ben had 8 scrambles (6 of which he converted into first downs), Batch 4 (1 conversion), Dixon 2 (1 conversion), and Leftwich 1 (did not convert). What makes this significant is that of 181 called passing plays, the line did not hold on 39 (21.5%). Essentially, a Steelers QB was sacked or forced to scramble about once out of every five 3rd down pass attempts.
But it wasn't all gloom and doom for the Steelers 3rd down offense. Yes, they faced a lot of long-yardage situations, but they did do a lot of things better in 2010 than they did in 2009. First and foremost, their short-yardage offense was vastly improved. In '09 the Steelers only converted 61% of 3rd and 1 running plays. In 2010, the Steelers converted 17 of 20 3rd and 1 runs, good for an 85% success rate, a marked improvement from 2009. This was reflected in the run-to-pass ratio as well, as the Steelers only threw the ball twice on 3rd and 1. The biggest difference in 3rd and short was the addition of Isaac Redman to the backfield. "Red Zone" converted on 8 of 10 3rd and 1 attempts. Mendenhall converted 3 of 4, but his miss came on 3rd and goal at the 1 against the Saints when the Steelers could have taken a lead. Moore converted his only 3rd and 1 carry and quarterbacks were perfect on QB sneak attempts (Ben 4, Batch 1).
Additionally, one of the biggest gripes we had with the 2009 data was that the Steelers only ran twice (7%) on 3rd and 2. This changed in 2010 as the Steelers ran on 7 of 24 3rd and 2 situations (30%). Of these 7 runs, only 3 were successful. Isaac Redman was the workhorse on 3rd and 2, getting the call on 6 of the 7 runs and responsible for all 3 of the conversions. Statistically, this was a marked improvement over the play-calling in 2009, but we would still like to see the Steelers run closer to 50% of the time on 3rd and 2. Somewhat shockingly, the Steelers actually converted runs beyond 3rd and 1 in 2010, something they didn't do at all in 2009. In addition to the 3 3rd and 2s, they converted a 3rd and 3 and a 3rd and 6 on the ground. This was a substantial improvement over 2009 and we hope the trend continues in 2011.
When the Steelers did take to the air, which was a vast majority of the time on 3rd down (81.9% of all 3rd down attempts, 89.9% of all 3rd down attempts of 2 yards or more), they did a good job spreading the ball around. 11 different receivers had receptions on 3rd down last year. Counting only the times when the QB actually threw a pass (not counting sacks or scrambles), there were 142 pass attempts on 3rd down last year for the Steelers. In the 12 games he played, Ben Roethlisberger threw 108 passes on 3rd down, completing 70 (64.8% completion percentage) and converting 54 into first downs (50% of attempts, 77% of completions). On top of that, Ben threw only 1 interception on 3rd down, and that was in his first drive of the season. After that, Ben kept the ball out of opponents hands on 3rd downs. We'll take that every day of the week.
We could probably do another whole post about the frequency in which receivers were targeted on 3rd down last year, but we'll try to hit some key points here at the end of this article.
- Running Backs were targeted 25 times, Tight Ends 19 times, and Wide Receivers 98 times.
- Mike Wallace was the most targeted player (21.1% of all targets), followed by Hines Ward (17.6%) and Emmanuel Sanders (12.7%)
- Wallace was also responsible for the most conversions (13), followed by Ward (12), and Sanders (9).
- Mewelde Moore was the least effective running back, converting only 41.2% of the times he was targeted, catching only 76.5% of passes thrown his way, and converting only 53.8% of the passes he caught into first downs. Moore was the most targeted running back with 17 targets.
- By contrast, Mendenhall caught all 3 passes thrown his way and converted 2. Redman caught 4 of 5 and converted 3, including the game-winning 9-yard touchdown in Baltimore to lock up the division.
- Amongst receivers and tight ends:
- Antonio Brown converted the most of his targets (57.1%), followed by Sanders (50%) and Heath Miller (50%).
- Brown and Miller both caught 71.4% of the balls thrown in their direction, followed by Wallace (60%).
- Of those with more than 1 catch, Sanders converted 90% of his catches into first downs, followed by Ward (85.7%), and Brown (80%).
On the whole, the Steelers effort on 3rd downs in 2010 was vastly improved over 2009. We'd still like to see more runs on 3rd and 2 (and maybe even 3rd and 3). But the Steelers did a lot of things right. The interceptions were down. For as much trouble as the offensive line had with injuries, the sacks weren't astronomically higher than they were in 2009. If you're looking for what Isaac Redman has brought to this team, look no further than his ability to convert 3rd down runs. The Steelers improved their 3rd down running percentage by almost 20% thanks in part to Redman's efforts in short yardage. The one area where the Steelers do need to improve in 2011 is situational football. While they were better in short yardage runs, one of Redman's stops was in the Atlanta game which forced a field goal attempt which Reed missed. Mendenhall's miss on 3rd and short came on the goal line in New Orleans. There were 8 missed field goal attempts after failed 3rd downs, two of which were the result of sacks. Sacks also knocked us out of field goal range and in the Miami game, caused the half to end without us being able to get off a field goal attempt. Big Ben was pretty damn good as well, completing over 60% of the passes he was able to throw, moving the chains half the time, and throwing no interceptions after his first drive of the year. Better protection up front and better situational football will help the completion percentage go up, the sack percentages go down, and get us into more manageable 3rd downs so that we're not facing 3rd and long (7 yards or more) almost half the time.