When the Pittsburgh Steelers host the Denver Broncos on Sunday, we will be seeing one of the best possible matchups in the league, pitting the league’s third-best defense on third downs against the best offense in converting on third down.
The best? The Steelers have only averaged a 40 percent success rate in converting on 64 of 162 third-down opportunities, which ranks them 16th in the league, or decidedly very mediocre, so what could I possibly be talking about?
Very simply, the Steelers’ third-down statistics have been decimated for the times in which the offense has been quarterbacked by Mike Vick and Landry Jones. When Ben Roethlisberger has been on the field, for the most part, the team has done a remarkable job on third down.
As best as I could track it, Roethlisberger has only been on the field for 105 of the Steelers’ 162 third-down plays, but he was on the field for 54 of their successful conversions. His 54 conversions in 105 attempts works out to a success rate of an absurd 51.4 percent, which is the best in the league.
Officially, the best third-down offense in the league is the New Orleans Saints, who have converted on 85 of 181 third downs, producing a success rate of 47 percent, which falls more than four percentage points behind what Roethlisberger has done this year. There are only six total teams who have an average above 42 percent this year, and the Steelers have faced four of them, and five of the top seven overall.
And it shows in their defensive statistics, as Pittsburgh has allowed 68 of 174 third-down attempts to be converted on that side of the ball, which falls just on the wrong side of the bottom half of the league, allowing about 39 percent of attempts to be converted.
The Broncos have not had that problem. They are one of just four teams to have held opponents to under a third of successful conversions, allowing a first down on only 57 of 177 third-down opportunities.
The only defenses that have done a better job of getting off the field on third down have been the Houston Texans, who lead the league at 30 percent, and the Seattle Seahawks, who like the Broncos allow conversions on only 32 percent of opportunities.
Needless to say, something has got to give when an offense that is converting over half of its opportunities on third down goes up against a defense that prevents a conversion over two thirds of the time. Which side will prevail on Sunday?
For the Steelers, they have actually been on an upswing, converting on 21 of 38 opportunities in the three games since the bye week, a rate of 55.3 percent. Over the course of their last three games, the Broncos have allowed just 10 conversions on 42 opportunities, a rate of 32.8 percent.
With both sides seemingly primed in their respective categories in recent weeks, only one of these trends can hold up.