The Steelers finished the year with the third rated offense on 3rd down, finishing the year at an impressive 47% clip. Only the Colts and Patriots fared better when it was time to keep the chains moving and the defense rested on the sidelines. For all the problems we had at various times running the ball consistently, the main reason Willie Parker was on pace to win a rushing crown and our offense was so productive scoring points was that we were very efficient on 3rd down. Seriously, how many times did we complain about all the 1-3 yard straight ahead runs by Parker? Many times for those who forgot. Yet Parker rushed for more yards than any other back in the NFL through 15 weeks because his offense was simply on the field far more often than their opponents'.
However, we haven't been nearly the same team offensively as we were during the first half of the year, and my intial hypothesis was that the root of the problem was a drastic regression on 3rd down. Here's what I found:
Week 9 vs. Baltimore: 7/17 - 41%
Week 10 vs. Cleveland: 8/16 - 50%
Week 11 vs. New York Jets: 5/16 - 31%
Week 12 vs. Miami: 4/12 - 33%
Week 13 vs. Cincinnati: 7/14 - 50%
Week 14 vs. New England: 5/14 - 35%
Week 15 vs. Jacksonvilee: 5/13 - 38%
Week 16 vs. St. Louis: 4/10 - 40%
Week 17 vs. Baltimore: 4/10 - 40%
What to make of that. Well first, let me say that our offense was playing sick football in the first half of the season. Especially on third down, because to finish the year at 47% with only one of our final 9 games ending with a higher % than our season average, we must have had some ridiculously productive days on 3rd down in the first part of the season. How about 8/11 - 72% against the Bengals? Or 11/16 against Buffalo? Not coincidentally, our two poorest outputs in the first half were against Cleveland and Arizona. In Cleveland, we were 7/17 for 41% and we were 5/15 for 33% against Arizona, a game we lost. The common theme? Road games. Otherwise though, it was a remarkable start to the season for the Steelers offense. Parker was getting so many carries, we were pontificating about the Curse of 370 as it related to Parker's workload. And I was quick to point out that Big Ben was on pace for a historic season after the Baltimore game.
All of those dreams came crashing to a halt in the second half of the season. There are of course the inner workings of the team and the season that explain the precipitous decline in 3rd down efficiency..i.e. a shaky offensive line, a running game that struggled to pick up 3rd and short situations, and of course some tougher conditions as the season entered the late fall and early winter. Not to mention it was harder for us to convert given the fact that we faced 3rd and a mile due to so many sacks on 1st and 2nd down.
Regardless, the fact remains that if the Steelers are going to succeed against Jacknsoville, and especially against New England or Indy if they were so fortunate to advance, they must perform incredibly well on 3rd down. That seems obvious, and it is. But I reiterate the importance of this largely because of the way our defense has been playing. It's beat up and the verdict is out on how to expose it. I do have faith that the defense can rebound, though I'm not willing to wager on it. Instead, I'd rather it simply not be compromised by inconsistent play by the offense. Let's stay on the field. Sustain a number of long, time-consuming scoring drives, capitalize in the redzone, and ultimately minimize the potential for our defense to be exposed, as it has since the New England game. And finally, many of our struggles have occurred away from Heinz Field. We're almost guaranteed to get only one home game in the AFC bracket, so if we are to go on an improbable run, we're going to have to shake a problem that has plagued us all year long, and especially in the second half of the season: poor play on 3rd down.