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Harris: Third-down woes cripple Steelers offense

| Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2009

The numbers are bad. Frightfully bad.

You have to wonder how the Steelers have become so stale and ineffective offensively, especially on third down, that a caveman could figure them out.

The Cleveland Browns were last in the NFL in total defense and playing without five injured starters against the Steelers. In what has become a season of lows for the Steelers, their offense failed to score a touchdown, and Ben Roethlisberger was sacked a season-high eight times.

A closer look at the numbers reveals that not only has the Steelers' offense ground to a halt during the current five-game losing streak, opponents have a pretty good idea what's coming on third down.

It's been on third down -- the "money" down -- that the offense has lost its way.

The Steelers have converted 38 percent (61 of 160) of third-down conversions, compared with a 41 percent conversion rate last season, 47 percent in 2007 and 43 percent in 2006.

It's the Steelers' lowest success rate since 2005, when they won Super Bowl XL with a 35 percent conversion rate. Which goes to show there's still a chance for the Steelers to salvage their season with three games to play.

Yeah, right.

The Steelers were 3 of 14 (21 percent) on third down against Cleveland. It was their second-lowest third-down effort during the five-game losing streak; the Steelers were 3 of 15 (20 percent) on third down in an 18-12 loss to Cincinnati on Nov. 15.

The rest of the Steelers' third-down numbers during their slump: 6 of 16 against Baltimore (38 percent); 3 of 9 against Oakland (33 percent); 4 of 13 against Kansas City (31 percent).

When NFL coaches discuss the fine line between winning and losing, they don't talk about the importance of converting on first and second down. They harp on the importance of sustaining drives on third down.

Eight of the Steelers' 14 third-down situations against Cleveland were 5 yards or more. Five of Roethlisberger's sacks came on third down, with two coming on third-and-short and three coming in obvious passing downs.

Based on the numbers, the Steelers have become a predictable offensive team on third down.

Only 22 of the Steelers' 68 third-down plays during the five-game skid have been runs, with three of those runs being the result of quarterback scrambles.

Opposing defenses know the percentages favor the Steelers passing the ball whether it's third-and-short or third-and-long, making it easier to ignore the run and go after the quarterback.

For example, the Steelers' first three pass plays on third down against Cleveland resulted in sacks.

So while it's popular to rip the offensive line for a struggling aerial attack, a heavy dose of the passing game -- combined with tight secondary coverage resulting in Roethlisberger holding onto the ball too long -- is also to blame for a lack of success on third down.

The Steelers were 1 for 6 on third-down passes against Cleveland. Coupled with five sacks on third down, the Steelers were 1 for 11 when Roethlisberger dropped back to pass on third down against the Browns.

Based on the Steelers' decision to pass 32 times compared with only 22 runs against Cleveland, the Steelers' short-yardage run game was better than the coaching staff anticipated. The Steelers were successful on two runs in their three attempts on third-and-1.

The Steelers converted over half of their third-down runs (13 of 22) during the losing streak.

It's a much better pecentage than they produced with their passing game on third down.

The Steelers called twice as many passes as runs during the losing streak, when the reverse should have been true.

Forty-six of the Steelers' third-down plays during the five-game losing streak have been pass plays. They've hit on six, making them successful in just under one of every eight pass attempts.

Statistically, the Steelers had a better chance of converting on third down with the run than the pass.

Keeping more drives alive with a better third-down conversion rate would have kept the much-maligned defense on the sideline longer and opposing offenses off the field. Maybe then the Steelers wouldn't be stuck in their worst slump in six years.

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