By Luke Nicholson
To sustain drives in the NFL, offenses must be able to convert third downs. This is, of course, common sense. The offense cannot score points without moving the chains, but what is necessary for a prolific third down offense? A star quarterback and a quartet of great receivers helps.
The Pittsburgh Steelers, when healthy, have just that and offensive coordinator Todd Haley has made use of his weapons. On the season, he has called passing plays on over 80% of the Steelers’ third down situations. While Haley most certainly misses having Ben Roethlisberger on the field for these crucial plays, don’t overlook the significance of Antonio Brown also watching from the sideline.
Prior to Brown leaving the New York Giants game, he and Mike Wallace were tied as the most targeted Steelers’ third down receivers with 19 targets each. Wallace converted on 7 of those targets (36.8%), while Brown converted 10 times (52.6%). Heath Miller ranked third with 17 targets, converting 10 times (58.8%). Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery, however, experienced the most success on third downs. Sanders converted on 9 occasions with 13 targets (69.2%), while Cotchery converted on 2 of 3 targets (66.7%).
Since Brown’s injury, the conversion numbers on third down for each receiver, save Miller, have dipped. Wallace has converted only once on 5 targets (20.0%), Sanders has converted on only 4 of 11 targets (36.4%), and Cotchery has converted on 3 of 7 targets (42.9%). As mentioned, Miller saw a bump, converting on 2 of 3 targets (66.7%), albeit with a dramatic decrease in looks.
It is worth noting that prior to Brown’s injury, Roethlisberger clearly experienced his best success converting third downs when throwing to his third and fourth receivers: Sanders and Cotchery. This can be attributed to the attention demanded of both Brown and Wallace on the outside. Even in the game and a half that Roethlisberger played sans Brown, Cotchery was targeted more times on third down than Wallace, Sanders, and Miller combined, although he only converted once on four targets (25.0%).
There is little doubt that the need to play Byron Leftwich and Charlie Batch over the last few weeks has equated to subpar third down production. A starting receiver of Brown’s caliber watching from the sideline does not help either, regardless of wide receiver depth. Assuming Roethlisberger is once again a spectator on Sunday verus the Baltimore Ravens, Haley and the Steelers’ offense could surely make use of Brown on the outside, drawing attention away from Sanders and hopefully creating some opportunities for whoever is under center. And if Roethlisberger does dress, I am sure he will not mind seeing Brown on the field either.