Over the course of his career, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has proven to be very good on third downs, but not even he could overcome the 9.08 average yards needed on the12 third down opportunities that he faced Monday night against the Cincinnati Bengals.
"Easily. Easily that’s scenario," said head coach Mike Tomlin when asked Tuesday during his press conference if the trouble on third downs is due to what is happening on first and second down. "If you just took a snap shot of the third down opportunities in the game, third-and-eight, third-and-nine, third-and-10, globally speaking, you’re not going to convert a lot of those or not going to convert those at the type of rate that’s going to allow you to be successful."
The Steelers lack of success on first and second downs against the Bengals was not only a result of a poor running game, but also an insistence to pass down the field too much on first downs.
Of the 15 first down and ten throws that Roethlisberger made in the game, nine of them traveled nine or more yards past the line of scrimmage and five of those nine were thrown 20 or more yards down the field. Only four of those nine throws were completed which meant that the other five throws set up second down and ten situations.
Staying way behind the chains on third down all night made it easy for the Bengals to defense as it not only took away the threat of the run, but the underneath passing game as well. As a result, Roethlisberger was having to throw nine or more yards down the field on third downs on average.
In case you are curious, the average of Roethlisberger's third down throws was a whopping 16.56 yards. Do you see the problem?
In order to stay ahead of the chains Sunday night against the Chicago Bears, the Steelers offense has to get the short passing game going on first and second downs while attempting to mix in the run. This means the use of quick slants to the wide receivers, a few bubble screens and designed screens to running back Felix Jones out of the backfield.
Remember Jones? He's the former first-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys that has caught 128 passes for 1,066 yards during his first five years in the league. He is more than capable out of the backfield as a receiver and by making the Bears respect him early Sunday night, it should open up the middle of the field more for short crossing completions to Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and now hopefully Markus Wheaton.
In addition to Jones, fullback Will Johnson needs to be more involved in the short passing game as well. He was only on the field for seven snaps Monday night. If they aren't going to use him as a fullback or tight end more, why is he even on the roster? A fullback that can catch, are you kidding me?
Make no mistake, Roethlisberger will be able to take a few shots down the field against the Bears, but he has to earn them first. Keeping the offense in third and manageable situations, however, has to be his primary goal unless the Steelers want a repeat of Monday night.