Jeremy Fowler, ESPN Staff Writer 350d

Third down can unlock Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers' passing game

PITTSBURGH -- Ben Roethlisberger feels he's making the correct decisions, likes where his game is physically, and isn't sweating the modest passing production from the Pittsburgh Steelers' offense.

"My numbers aren't great, and that's OK," Roethlisberger told 93.7 the Fan during his weekly radio spot.

Sunday's 26-9 win over the Baltimore Ravens reflected that attitude. Despite 216 yards on 18-of-30 passing, Roethlisberger set the offensive pace with run-pass checks, threw to seven different receivers, and helped the offense convert 7-of-15 on third down.

That last number is significant, and a potential hurdle to clear if the passing game is to take flight.

On the Steelers' 52 third downs this season, they've faced third-and-10 or longer on 15 of them, compared to 20 situations of third-and-4 or shorter. This has forced the Steelers into obvious intermediate passing downs, with Roethlisberger competing 20-of-38 for 201 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions on the most crucial down in football.

The numbers are respectable, but 13 of those 38 passes were converted into first downs, and there were also three sacks. The Steelers have faced an untenable third-and-18 or worse on five downs.

When the offense isn't moving the ball consistently with balance, as it did Sunday in Baltimore, third down is a struggle.

The Steelers rank 25th overall in third-down conversion (19-of-52), sandwiched between the Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers haven't ranked lower than 17th from 2014-16, and they were No. 2 in 2014.

Coach Mike Tomlin said he has no regard for league rankings, especially this early.

“There’s not enough volume to make judgments about where we stack up relative to others," said Tomlin at his weekly news conference Tuesday. "I’m concerned about where we stack up relative to the people that we play against in stadiums. Largely, we’ve been better on third down than the people we’ve played against. ... There’s room for growth there and we’ll continue to do it."

The Minnesota Vikings are the only opponent this season to fare better on third down than Pittsburgh in a head-to-head matchup, and the Steelers defeated the Vikings 26-9.

Roethlisberger is performing best when targeting his over-the-middle options on third down. He is a combined 8-of-11 for 86 yards and three touchdowns when targeting slot receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and tight end Jesse James.

Many factors can play into that – such as when lead receiver Antonio Brown draws a double-team – but those numbers reinforce Roethlisberger's emphasis to spread the ball.

A better connection between Roethlisberger and receiver Martavis Bryant would help the offense find proper footing. Roethlisberger is 2-of-7 for 37 yards and an interception when throwing to Bryant on third down, including a deep-ball miss that Roethlisberger said would have been a "dagger" in the victory over Baltimore.

Roethlisberger's positive from that particular play: It's a reminder that his 35-year-old arm can still make all the throws.

"When I'm overthrowing Martavis Bryant, that's a good thing," he told 93.7.

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