The Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense were chain-movers in 2018. They converted 44.4% of their third downs, eighth best in football When the Steelers came away victors, it usually correlated to excellent success on those critical downs. 50% conversion rate in games they won, 34% in the ones they lost. It’s an obvious point, I know.
How they set themselves up for that type of success is a lot more interesting and underappreciated element. The odds of converting a 3rd and 4 versus a 3rd and 7 is substantial (46% vs 38%). An offense setting itself up for 3rd and short is critical. It inherently gives you better odds and expands the playbook of how to convert.
That’s one area where the Steelers’ offense thrived last season. According to Pro Football Reference, Pittsburgh averaged only 6.76 yards to go on 3rd down. That sounds like a bad number, I know, but it’s an average, and tied for the 6th best mark in the NFL. In fact, only one team, the New England Patriots, finished under six yards (5.89).
It’s no shock that the top seven teams all saw their third down conversions above 40%. Meanwhile, the bottom eight teams in yards to go were all below 40%.
The Steelers succeeded here despite, as we wrote, having a run game that needs to be more efficient on first down. But with the weapons they had on offense and their effectiveness in using the quick game and getting the ball into the hands of their playmakers, they routinely set up third and manageable. Which was good because they needed to go on long drives to produce points. No offense had a worse starting field position than Pittsburgh thanks to an abysmal kick return game and defense that couldn’t produce a turnover to save its life.
Randy Fichtner got the offense to show improvement after a stagnant past two seasons. Here are the Steelers’ third down yardage in the last two years of Todd Haley’s tenure.
And even when Haley had better “to go” numbers, rarely was the offense better on third down. Since 2010, only twice have the Steelers done a better job on 3rd down than what Fichtner put together last year. That was 2011 (45.9%) and 2014 (44.7%).
The challenge will be doing it again in 2019. Running the ball better will be key as will the new group of receivers winning on early downs and making plays in space.