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Failed conversions tell the story of an underperforming Steelers’ offense

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Pittsburgh’s failure to dominate opponents on the scoreboard during the regular season can be traced to the offense’s failure to convert Red Zone opportunities and fourth-down attempts.

Divisional Round - Jacksonville Jaguars v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

When you peruse the overall statistics for the 2017 regular season, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense might appear, at first glance, to be in roughly the same class as the New England Patriots and some of the other top NFL offenses. According to Pro Football Reference, for example, in points scored per game (25.4), the Steelers stand within only about a field-goal margin of the high-flying Patriots (28.6). In the category of team offense, the Black-and-gold ranks No. 8 overall but No. 3 among the NFL offenses that gained more than 6,000 yards during the 2017 season.

While it might come as a surprise to many critics of the Steelers’ offensive schemes in general (and Todd Haley in particular), Pittsburgh actually ranked No. 2 in the league in converting third-down plays with a 44-percent mark. Only the Atlanta Falcons—a team that, interestingly enough, also failed to advance in the playoffs—notched a better mark (44.7 percent) than the Steelers in third-down situations.

While third downs are certainly important, it’s in some other key conversion categories where the team’s offensive problems surface. In particular, the Steelers ranked No. 24 among the league’s 32 teams in fourth-down conversions—which commonly are pivotal in determining the outcomes of tightly-contested games. In fact, the Black-and-gold’s success rate (37.5 percent) on fourth-down attempts in 2017 is comparable to that of mediocre offenses such as the Denver Broncos (35 percent) and New York Giants (38.1 percent).

Similarly, in the key category of Red Zone conversions, the Steelers rank 22nd in the league with an RZ percentage of 50.8. This places them in close company with the Falcons (once again) who converted 50 percent and—embarrassingly—the Cleveland Browns who converted 48.7 percent.

So while we’re focused on plugging some of the holes in the Steelers’ defense during the off-season, it’s equally important for Mike Tomlin and company to take a close look at why this hugely talented offense continues to misfire in crucial situations. Furthermore, this is hardly a new issue for the team. For a number of years, we’ve seen the Steelers’ offense looking very good between the 20-yard lines, but not so good when they approach pay dirt or try to move the sticks on fourth downs.

This has been a nagging problem for the team for quite some time, because I distinctly recall the great concern I felt when Santonio Holmes was stopped on the 7-yard line near the end of the fourth quarter in Super Bowl 43. Even back then, the Black-and-gold was having difficulty in those situations.

It’s unclear whether the solution involves Pittsburgh’s offensive coordination (which is being changed), the tendencies of Ben Roethlisberger (which probably can’t be changed), or a combination of both. I certainly don’t have the answer, but the stats speak strongly of a need for significant changes to an offense which was widely expected to be far more productive on the scoreboard at the outset of the 2017 season.

In the past, it seemed that Big Ben had more reliable and consistent Red Zone targets (e.g. Hines Ward and Heath Miller), in addition to a running back (Jerome Bettis) who could push the pile into the end zone or perhaps simply run over Brian Urlacher. Nowadays, though, it often seems the Steelers have no real confidence they’ll come away with touchdowns in the Red Zone, whether they’re running the ball or passing.

One thing I do know, however, is that the BTSC faithful will hold forth with a boatload of useful suggestions for fixing what ails the Steelers’ offense before the 2018 regular season kicks off.