2009 Offensive Third Down Efficiency

During the 2009 season the Pittsburgh Steelers had plenty of problems, but the one people like to gripe about most was the offensive play calling by fan non-favorite,  Bruce Arians.  Specifically, one of the biggest concerns was the obscure or poor play calling on third down.  Good 3rd down conversion rates have a direct correlation to an offense performing well, says Captain Obvious.  Therefore, I decided to delve deep into the 2009 box scores and analyze our 3rd downs.

A few weeks ago, I recalled someone saying you should never investigate something if you believe you already know the answer.  Your bias will lead you to skew how you look at the data and you will develop an unbalanced analysis.  I have been pretty 50/50 on BA, defending him for good offensive production, but realizing his flaws in inconsistent play calling.  Hopefully, my analysis is as level as possible.  Let's dive into the numbers after the jump.

Basic 3rd Down Statistics:

Attempts 199
Converted 78
Success  Rate 39.20%
4th down attempts 11
4th down converted 8
4th down success rate 72.72%
Combined attempts 210
Combined converted 86
Combined success rate 40.95%












Situational Down Distances:

Down & 1: 37
Down & 2: 15 (3rd & 1 or 2 will be considered a "Short Down")
Down & 3: 9
Down & 4: 16
Down & 5: 19 (3rd & 5 or less will be considered a "Manageable Down")
Down & 6+: 114


Short Downs

Attempts 51
Converted 31
Success Rate 60.78
Run 32
Run Converted 21
Run Success Rate 65.63
Pass 19
Pass Converted 11
Pass Success Rate 57.89













QB Sneaks: 10, 7 converted, 70% success rate

Just by looking at these numbers you would think they are great, considering they are all successful more than half the time.  However, on short distances the defense is always more likely to fail.  Luckily, for me the guys at Advanced NFL Stats are fanatics about every niche of NFL stats.  They have done an awesome 3 Part break down of "Play Calling on 3rd and Short" that I will reference (Part 2 and Part 3).

Clearly, the best way to convert on 3rd and short is to square up and run right up the middle with a good push from your center and guards.  However, as with all of football play-calling, if you become predictable you will not be successful.  The other team will load the box and stop the run if they know it is coming.  Therefore, a good OC must mix it up with occasional passes.  The pertinent question then becomes: how occasionally is good?  Here is a look at a chart of conversion rates according to yards "to go":


It appears that the average conversion rate on 3rd and short  runs is about 66% and on passing it is about 56-57%.  That is roughly an average success rate of about 61% on 3rd and short.  Looking back at our 2009 Short Down conversions, we can ascertain that our conversion rates were about average, with our passing conversion rate a bit above average.  That drops us from a our perceived exceptional Short Down conversions to an average Short Down team.  In my opinion, an average team is an 8-8 or 9-7 team that just misses the playoffs.


Manageable Downs

Attempts: 96
Converted: 55
Success Rate: 57.29%

Considering the success rate for an average 3rd and 5 is nearer to 40% and 3rd and 1 success rates are near 66%, I can make a huge assumption that a good success rate on a Manageable Down would be around 50-54%.  That means that the 2009 Steelers were above average on 3rd and 5 or shorter.  As long as the Steelers utilized 1st and 2nd down well, they had a very good chance of bringing up a new set of downs.  However, with nearly 54.29% of their 3rd downs being over 5 yards, that was not as often the case.  Anyway, I would assume that the Steelers had such a high success rate on Manageable Downs is because they were so comfortable passing the ball.  That is evident when you consider 60% of the plays called on Manageable Downs were designed pass plays.


Breakdown by Quarter

Conversion Rates by Quarter:
1st: 39.29
2nd: 43.48
3rd: 35.71
4th: 43.33
OT: 40.00

Did anyone actually believe our offense did anything successfully in the 4th quarter this year?  Apparently, they were very successful with 3rd downs in the 4th quarter, as well as the 2nd quarter.  A good reason for this is how well the offense performed in the 2 minute drill as well as "crunch" time (when the team needed a score).  Converting crucial third downs is the key to having a good 2 minute offense.  How could an offense with such a high production on 3rd down in the 4th quarter lose so many games in that quarter?  Well I did not break down the defensive numbers, but I would assume opposing teams had a much higher 3rd down conversion rate in the 4th, probably around 50%.  Off the top of my head I recall two huge 3rd downs that Cincinnati connected on and one gigantic 3rd down pass for Ray Rice in Baltimore.

Anyway, the must curious number to me is the awful 3rd quarter conversion rate.  On our 5 game losing streak we were outscored 16-6 in the 3rd quarter and gave up a lead in several of those games.  I can surmise that the team might have gotten comfortable leads and then pulled their foot off of the gas pedal.  That allowed our opponents to creep back before we hit the "oh shit" button late in the game (sometimes too late).  Consistency was clearly a problem with our offense this year and these fluctuating numbers reflect that.  A big call to Bruce Arians is to have a stable offense that still has the ability to gash you with one big Mike Wallace catch or Santonio Holmes run after the catch.  However, the crucial aspect must be a good balance and use of the "big play."  That means no more calling a deep pass on 3rd and short in the 4th quarter, Bruce.


Best 3rd (or 4th) Down Contributors

These numbers were pretty interesting, I thought.  I was curious to find out who was the best contributor on these downs, or who got the most 1st downs on 3rd and 4th down.  I would have assumed that Hines Ward and Heath Miller led the pack with Rashard Mendenhall just behind him because of the considerable looks he gets on Short Downs.  However, leading the pack was Santonio Holmes with 19 first downs, the rook Mike Wallace had 15, Ben Roethlisberger had 11 (7 QB sneaks and 4 scrambles), Mendenhall had 10, Ward had 9, and Miller had 8.  Quite the opposite of what I expected, but I am glad to see two of our very good WRs getting open when they matter most.  Other contributors included: Mewelde  Moore 5, Dennis Dixon 3, Willie Parker 1, Matt Spaeth 1, Carey Davis 1, Tyler Grisham 1.


Random Stats

  • We had 13 penalties called against us on 3rd down.  Four players had 2 called on them: Willie Colon, Chris Kemoeatu, Justin Hartwig, and Ward.  The players with 1 were: Trai Essex, Wallace, Darnell Stapleton, Miller, and Moore.
  • Ben was sacked 23 times on 3rd down, that is 11.56% of his 3rd downs, and 14.11% of his drop backs on 3rd down.  That seems like a low percent, but to put it into perspective the league average is 6.1% of drop backs are sacks and Ben's number for the year was 9%.  I think we can blame BA's empty backfields for that and a few on Ben holding the ball too long..  Lastly, consider that Ben was sacked 5 times on 3rd down in the Cleveland game (41.67% of drop backs on 3rd down for that game)!!!
  • We had 9 touchdowns on 3rd down this year and only 5 interceptions.


What can somebody even conclude from all this mumbo jumbo?  Well for one, we can conclude that I am extremely lazy in my statistical breakdown because I promised I would do this around the end of the year.  However, that is neither here nor there.

When I was running through all of these numbers I kept Bruce Arians's play calling in mind.  I think it is safe to say that many people believe that BA's play calling on 3rd down was stale, awful, and predictable (among a myriad of other nasty adjectives that I will not repeat).  I am going to agree and disagree with you.  First, let me express why I disagree with you.  Overall, BA's 3rd down conversion rate was about average in the league.  We may expect more than average, but you must consider there were teams worse than us with good offenses (NYJ, Arizona, and Philly all playoff teams).  Additionally, our offense was above average when it came to converting on Manageable Downs and about average on Short Down conversions.  Therefore, we are not the worst team in the league when it comes to short yardage.  Moreover, you would actually be surprised in the difference between this years 3rd down conversion rate compared to 2008.  As mentioned we were around 39.2% and in 2008 we were about 41%.  In other words, that is roughly 3 or 4 more conversions out of those 199 third downs.

Where I tend to agree with you is the lack of consistency in BA's play calling.  It seemed that on far too many crucial third downs, whether they be 4th quarter or just red zone 3rd downs, BA seemed to pull some whacky crap out of his hat occasionally.  Just consider that Jeff Reed had 8 sub 29 yard field goals (roughly that is the red zone).  That is unacceptable for an "elite" offense.  Too many times, especially against the Bengals, we gave up 4 points on odd third down play calls.  Additionally, BA seemed to have a fascination with throwing bombs on 3rd down.  I will not completely object to that, because you can catch a safety cheating into the box on 3rd and short.  However, making that play call late in games or on "must score" drives is absolutely unacceptable.  Even when this play is successful, the huge flaw is that it leaves a ton of time left on the clock.  How many times did we see our defense put back on the field too soon after a good stop?  Bruce Arians, I think I speak for a lot of us when I say be smart, concise, and unpredictable on 3rd down.  Make the goal of 3rd down to get a fresh set of downs and not a canvas to display Ben's arm.

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