The Pittsburgh Steelers offense has been treading water for the past month, waiting for its salvation, Ben Roethlisberger, to return from a knee injury that forced him to miss the previous three games, but after the initial promise of the opening touchdown drive, it was all downhill from there.
There was one aspect in particular that bore a striking resemblance to the offensive units quarterbacked by the likes of Mike Vick and Landry Jones in that time span. That category of ineptitude would be third-down efficiency, an element of Roethlisberger’s game that has become excellent over the past several years.
As I pointed out just a few days ago, the Steelers were abysmal on the pivotal down while Roethlisberger was sidelined, including during the fourth quarter of the game in which he suffered the sprained MCL that put him on crutches.
Over the span of a little over 17 quarters of football, the combination of Vick and Jones was given 54 opportunities to convert on third down. They managed to do so successfully a mere 12 times for a strikingly poor 22 percent.
In stark contrast, the Steelers through the first 10-plus quarters with Roethlisberger under center were spectacular, converting 21 of 32 third-down opportunities for what was at the time a league-best 66 percent success ratio.
Yesterday afternoon, however, the franchise quarterback looked more like the career backup-aspirant, with his offense converting on just three of 11 third-down opportunities for a success rate of only 27 percent.
Two of those conversions came on the opening drive of the game, including a third-and-two on the third play, on which Roethlisberger completed a 15-yard pass to Antonio Brown. The drive ended with a third-and-goal from the one-yard line on which he again found Brown for the score.
From that point on, the offense was completely inept when forced into a third-down situation, failing to convert on eight of its nine remaining opportunities, with the only over successful conversion coming late in the second quarter on a nine-yard completion on third and four, a drive that ended with a punt.
For the remainder of the game, Roethlisberger was just two for seven on third down, including one interception, taking two sacks on third and seven and third and 18. He threw for no gain on third and three and for 14 yards on a dump off pass on third and 16 when the Steelers were already in field goal range.
The Steelers did convert one addition third down via defensive penalty on their final drive, though that does not officially factor into the third-down conversion rate for the offense, positively or negatively.
It is readily apparent that the Steelers offense needs Roethlisberger to shake off the rust as soon as possible, particularly when it comes to throwing the ball on third down, where he has been about as good as anybody in the league over the course of the last few years.
They simply cannot win with this type of performance, nor can they continue to put their defense in so many negative situations, in spite of the fact that they have more than risen above expectations this year.