Earlier in the year, I wrote about the Steelers’ struggles on third down and how they could improve that by running the ball on first and second downs. But now six weeks into the season, it has become apparent that the opposite is in fact true. The Steelers are experiencing better success, and shorter third downs, when throwing the ball on first down.
The following breakdown does not include first down plays that resulted in a penalty on either team, though there were very few. I also removed the 60-yard end-around by Darrius Heyward-Bey to avoid killing the curve, as it was an obvious outlier. But this focuses solely on first downs, as that is the down that sets the tone more often than not.
Steelers First Down Plays
Average 3rd down (Passing and Rushing): 6.2 yards
Rushing: 68 plays, facing third down 59% of the time (Average 3rd down: 6.5 yards)
Pass: 88 plays, facing third down 44% of the time (Average 3rd down: 6.2 yards)
While both styles of play are yielding very similar third down yardage, it is obvious that the passing plays have thus far been the better option when considering it as a whole. This is not to say the formula is perfect, and that the team should continue with this method. For one, they don’t have Ben Roethlisberger under center, and will be facing teams who employ different looks on first down week in and week out.
This is simply here for reference and something to consider to help shed some light and where this team is at this point of the season. But what does jump out most when looking at this, is the percentage of third downs faced when employing either the pass or the run game on first down. Despite passing more times on first down than running, they wind up facing third downs less. 15% less to be exact.
Some outliers that can be pointed out are the situations the team is in during the games. For instance, the Steelers only ran the ball on first down five times against the Eagles, and seven times against the Dolphins. They were down considerably in these games, and thus were more inclined to throw the ball and look for big play opportunities.
Also, the defenses were more willing to give up some yardage as long as they protected the deep ball. But the same situation can be said for the run plays, in which Pittsburgh utilized often in both the Washington and Cincinnati games.
They likely won’t be passing too much in the game coming up against New England, primarily because of the absence of Roethlisberger, but possibly also due to the need for establishing the run early and often in a pivotal matchup.
A separate, and quite likely more glaring issue, is the fact that this team is facing an average 3rd and 6. Nobody is going to go a whole season only facing 3rd and short’s, but 6 yards is long enough to not have the best probabilities for conversions no matter how good the team is. I’ll be interested to see how these figures pan out and compare throughout the rest of the season, but for now, it is what it is.