The Pittsburgh Steelers ran the ball four times against the Dallas Cowboys on possession downs with one yard to go, whether it was third or fourth down. They netted minus-two yards on those plays, with one first down, and two turnovers on downs. James Conner ran twice with one conversion. Anthony McFarland and Benny Snell both had one failure.
The Steelers only had one short-yardage run last week against the Baltimore Ravens on a possession down, but that too was a failure, Conner being stopped for no gain on 3rd and 1 by Calais Campbell, the failure that gave the Ravens another chance to try to take the lead at the end of the game.
What happened here? Why have the Steelers been such a bad running team in short yardage over the past two weeks? How long has this been going on? And what has been limiting them? Why haven’t they been using two-back sets in these situations?
“We create additional gaps for them to have to defend”, Mike Tomlin said on Sunday in answering the latter question. “Plus Derek Watt was not available to us, so it’s a culmination of things. But there are no excuses. We’re a capable short-yardage group. We have been. We weren’t today. We’ve got to own that, and we will”.
Are they a capable running team, though, after having four short-yardage failures on five attempts over a two-week span—even against one of the worst run defenses in the NFL? How can this claim be justified? Well, we can start by looking at the numbers for the rest of the season.
Over the course of the first six games, the Steelers ran the ball 21 times on third or fourth down with between one and four yards needed for a first down or a touchdown. They converted 14 of them for a 66.7 percent conversion rate.
Conner had eight attempts himself during that span, averaging over four yards per carry with six first downs. Snell has gotten seven attempts and converted five times, despite averaging fewer than two yards per carry. Chase Claypool went two-for-two. Over four total attempts, Ben Roethlisberger, Jaylen Samuels, and McFarland combined for one conversion.
Their conversion rate in such situations would have ranked in the middle of the league, but with the struggles recently, their conversion rate has dropped to 57.7 percent, which ranks 29th in the NFL. interestingly enough, the Cowboys are the best short-yardage team in the league among those with at least 10 rushes, converting 84 percent of the time.
There are 13 teams who are converting in short-yardage situations on possession downs at a rate of 70 percent or better. The Steelers are one of only five teams converting at a rate of under 60 percent. They do rank tied for the 11th-most conversions overall.