If there’s one thing that an offense hates, other than turnovers, it’s 3rd and long. You make yourself much more predictable to the defense and let’s face it, most teams don’t have many 3rd and 20 plays in their offensive game plan. The Steelers have been making a living out of converting large down and distance situations through the first 2 weeks of the season, but how long can they last?
The Steelers are currently ranked 3rd in the entire NFL in Time of Possession (35:50 per game); a stat that is very important to a ball control offense. So long as you finish off drives with at least some type of points, preferably Touchdowns of course, you shorten the game and keep the opposition’s scoring chances to a minimum. It’s a good strategy to live by but the Steelers are doing it the hard way this year.
When you don’t have a quality running game, you not only make yourself vulnerable to the pass rush but also you increase your chances of constantly getting into 3rd down and 10, 15, and 20 yds or more. The Steelers are currently ranked 3rd from the bottom in rushing in 2012; even though it’s still early in the season, it’s not a good sign. One can only blame “learning a new offense” so much because if you look at the game plan through the air, it’s been pretty darn successful. Normally it’s the other way around; the ground game starts off better than the pass.
According to stats at ESPN, Roethlisberger tops the league in passing yards (251), passing first downs (16) and Quarterback Rating (99.4) on third downs after two games into the regular season. He ranks second in completion percentage (76.0) on third down and is tied for first with three passing touchdowns.
This type of 3rd down efficiency isn’t anything new in Pittsburgh. In 2011, Roethlisberger completed 62.1 percent of his passes and threw for 1,211 yards and seven touchdowns. Ben also had his 2nd best passing season to date with 4,077 yds. To counter that stat a bit though, the ground attack was average, ranking 14th in 2011 with 118.9 yds per game. The main thing the Steelers always strive for is balance; but so far this season they haven’t achieved that just yet.
To say that the Steelers offense is sputtering on the ground is an understatement. Perhaps that will be rectified after the bye week when Rashard Mendenhall looks to return to the lineup. He’s been performing great in practice and many players have said he’s been cutting and accelerating better than ever. Even if Mendenhall returns soon, the offensive line is still a work in progress. Maurkice Pouncey, Max Starks, Ramon Foster, and Marcus Gilbert all have starting experience in their current positions and Willie Colon is coming along at Guard nicely. The problem is, that experience hasn’t come with all of them together. These 5 need to stay healthy and if they do then we can expect, in theory at least, that the rushing attack will start to pick up some of the slack.
That slack is partly to blame for Ben Roethlisberger constantly having to come up with heroics on 3rd down to move the chains. Isaac Redman is getting back to 100% after preseason injuries and Jonathan Dwyer should see additional snaps in the coming weeks ahead. Even though both players are power backs, the line has to do its job and open up some type of a hole for them run through. Defenses have been crashing the middle of the Steelers line frequently and getting penetration which blows up the play before it has a chance to start. First and 10 quickly becomes 2nd and 13 which then becomes 3rd and 15 or worse.
The Steelers spent significant amounts of time in training camp and preseason working on their rushing attack but so far it hasn’t paid off. A healthy offensive line and the return of a home run back like Mendenhall will start paying off sooner or later but in the meantime, Roethlisberger will have to continue to be the hero on 3rd and forever.