Carter’s Classroom: Third downs mostly on Ben

Each of the Steelers’ losses feature struggles in third down offense. We analyze how those breakdowns happen and how they can improve.

Ben Roethlisberger calls out adjustments against the Chargers - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

After going 1-2 in their past three games, the Steelers have multiple areas to address. I focused this week’s War Room on coverage issues with the Chargers’ Keenan Allen, but equally troubling about their 33-30 loss Sunday at Heinz Field was their showing on third down, converting 3 of 10 and continuing a trend in their losses.

A hard look at the Xs and Os reveals some answers as to how they can improve:

The Steelers rank seventh in the NFL in third-down offense, which has contributed to the offense overall ranking fourth in both yards and points per game. But take a look at the night-and-day fluctuation on third downs during their wins and losses to see how big a factor it’s become:

Their 53.4 percent success rate in their wins would rank the highest by far in the NFL, as the Buccaneers have the best percentage with 49.3. But their 32.3 success rate in their four losses and one tie would rank them 29th between the Dolphins and Bills.

What’s telling is that the average distance of third downs in their wins and losses is roughly a single yard. Meaning the difference in success isn’t because they’re creating shorter third down situations, but more because of execution on the third-down plays.

That’s why I looked closer at playcalling on third downs and their results. The average distance to go on third down run plays being less than three yards showed the importance of being able to win through the air. From the 22 run plays the Steelers have called on third down, eleven have come when they only needed one yard to gain.

This means the Steelers need to attack through the air to convert the average range of 6-7 yards to go on third downs. The Steelers have hit a slump the past three weeks when passing on third downs, converting only 22.2 percent against the Jaguars, 30.7 percent against the Broncos and 30 percent against the Chargers.

Much of that comes from Ben Roethlisberger being able to recognize and exploit each defense he faces. We covered how defenses are adjusting to the Steelers last week and how that involved disguised defensive schemes.

Roethlisberger started the Chargers game with three consecutive third-down conversions, signaling he was ready to have a strong game. He even read through some of the disguised defenses, like when his deep ball to Ryan Switzer drew a defensive pass interference to set up a touchdown in the first quarter.

Watch how the Chargers show two high safeties with eight players at the line, trying to fool Roethlisberger to think they were in a man cover 2 scheme. They quickly drop to a cover 1, with the lone deep safety following Antonio Brown.

As soon as Roethlisberger sees the only deep safety follow Brown, he switches to Switzer knowing the defender is already behind him because of the man coverage:

That’s an elite read, and it looked like Roethlisberger was in for an elite night early on. But that stopped when he threw his interception in the second quarter. Even then, he saw through another fake another cover 2 defense, and targeted Vance McDonald on his streak to the spot the safety vacated. His mistake wasn’t his read, just that the ball slipped from his hand:

The interception was the early part of seven consecutive failed third downs by the Steelers; all of which came through passing plays. Roethlisberger’s issues came from not being able to rotate through his progressions and find the weak spots in various coverage packages.

Watch how the Chargers use a zone defense with the majority of their defenders are to the middle of the field, but Brown and Switzer are up against two defensive backs with just five yards to go. The Chargers jump the underneath routes over the middle, but Roethlisberger doesn’t recognize their clogging of the middle of the field left Brown with plenty of space to his left in the flat:

Among Roethlisberger’s consistent struggles in both losses to the Broncos and Chargers were the fake blitzes that fooled him. Both teams would load the line of scrimmage with eight defenders, leaving three defensive backs off the ball, only to drop their linebackers to cover the middle of the field.

Watch how that alignment gets Roethlisberger to commit to Brown pre-snap, being exactly what the Broncos want to force a fourth down:

The Chargers used an almost identical scheme multiple times to get the best of Roethlisberger. Watch how he thinks he has McDonald over the middle, but never sees Justin Hunter get behind the linebackers or Brown sprinting into single coverage on a deep route:

If the Steelers want to make a serious push to the playoffs, they cannot afford to have these moments against the better NFL teams like the Patriots and Saints. they get a chance to boost their numbers this week with the Raiders, who rank 30th in third down defense.

While the Patriots (26th) and Saints (21st) don’t rank much better, each boast offenses that will challenge the Steelers to produce closer to the 32.43 points per game average when they’re dominating third downs.