Steelers offense aims to fix short-yardage troubles
Last week’s game was one of the worst overall offensive performances for the Pittsburgh Steelers in recent memory. But it perhaps was only an extra yard gained here or there from turning out a whole lot different.
“It’s crazy how such little things can affect a play,” tight end Nick Vannett said after practice Friday. “It can stop you from getting a yard or two. This is a game of inches, and we want to get as many as we can.”
Too often during last week’s 21-7 loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Steelers came up a few inches — or, at most, feet — short. Eight times they lined up for plays of third- or fourth-down and 1 yard or 2 yards to go. During just one of those did they pick up the first down.
It was the continuation of a troubling trend for the Steelers offense. Among 28 chances on third- or fourth-down and 1 or 2 to go this season, it has converted only nine. That’s a 32.1% conversion rate. Only two teams in the NFL (the New York Jets and Washington Redskins) have a worse combined conversion rate for third and fourth downs of ANY distance.
To further illustrate that point, the Steelers have actually been better at picking up first downs on third or fourth downs when they needed more than 2 yards than when they needed 2 or fewer.
“On a very makeable down, a situation like third-and-1, we have to do a better job,” tight end Vance McDonald said. “But it really just comes down to the guys making silly mistakes.”
It might be a stretch to say their short-yardage troubles cost them the game last week in Cleveland, but they had three drives stall in Cleveland territory because of failings on third- and/or fourth-and-short.
Regardless of the field position, four of the seven Steelers drives that did not end in a score, a field-goal attempt, a turnover or end of a half were thwarted by short-yardage gaffes. The failings ran the gamut from everything from incomplete deep passes to wide receivers and incomplete short passes to tight ends to incomplete passes to running backs, false-start penalties and a 1-yard loss on a running play.
The Steelers are football's worst-short yardage team. They convert on 3rd and long (27%) at the same rate as they do 3rd and short (28%). Which is…wow.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) November 18, 2019
“We realize short yardage has been an issue for us,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “There are some ways to approach it. No. 1, we have to execute better. There is a certain meat-on-meat or bone-on-bone element of football that you can’t run away from, and short yardage is one of them. But at the same time, we could do some things from a coach’s perspective from a planning and schematics perspective to assist the guys, as well. And I think we are working in both areas.”
The Steelers did plenty of work on short-yardage offense in recent days.
“We take a lot of pride in that, and we sure have been taking lot of pride in it this week,” Vannett said. “We’ve started off with it during walkthroughs each week, and we started practice with it (this week), so we put a huge emphasis on it.”
The return of Benny Snell from a three-game absence because of knee surgery figures to help. The rookie running back prides himself on being a bruiser in short yardage.
Regardless of the runners, though, the Steelers blockers insist they will be the reason the offense gets its badly needed short yards.
“I think we are going to be a lot better,” Vannett said. “We expect to be a lot better from here on out.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .