You don't have to look far for the reason the Steelers scored just 10 points in their loss to the New Orleans Saints eight days ago.
No, not offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.
The Steelers were 3 for 10. Their goal in every game is at least a 50 percent conversion rate. They reached that just once this season when they were 7 for 14 in their win Oct. 17 against the Cleveland Browns. They are at 34.1 percent for the season, which ranks 29th in the NFL. Their 102 first downs are fewer than any team but the one-win Carolina Panthers.
Be thankful for that 5-2 record. It's probably better than the Steelers deserve even if they were without their top two quarterbacks in the first four games.
"We've got to be better," Arians said late last week as the team finished preparations for the game tonight at Cincinnati. "It doesn't matter if you're running the ball or passing the ball if you're not making third downs. You can't run it or pass it if you don't have it."
The Steelers had just 52 plays in the 20-10 loss to the Saints, 15 fewer than the Saints. That made it hard to get any sort of rhythm going.
"It's a shame because I thought we were running the ball extremely well early in the game," Arians said. The Steelers averaged 6.7 yards a carry on their six first-quarter rushes. The problem was they were 0 for 3 on third downs. "I thought we could have pounded them," Arians said. "Then, it opens up the play-action passing game. We could have found Mike [Wallace] more. We could have found Heath [Miller]. We just didn't have enough snaps."
The most crucial third-down failure happened early in the second quarter when the Steelers had third-and-goal at the Saints' 1. Running back Rashard Mendenhall went off right tackle but was stopped for no gain because fullback David Johnson missed his block. Don't just blame Johnson, though. That series was doomed from the start.
On first-and-goal from the Saints' 6-inch line, running back Isaac Redman lost a yard because guard Trai Essex blew his assignment. "I thought we were running another play," Essex said. "That's a walk-in touchdown if not for me." Arians, when asked why he didn't try a quarterback sneak with Ben Roethlisberger, said, "It was the same play as a sneak with the same blocking. We gave the ball to a 245-pound running back running straight ahead. If we had busted the block [on a sneak], Ben could have gotten a broken neck."
Then, on second down from the Saints' 2, Mendenhall appeared to score and might have been given a touchdown upon review of the play if coach Mike Tomlin had bothered to throw his red challenge flag. This was far from the best coaching job of Tomlin's career. Late in the third quarter, with the Saints leading, 6-3, and points at a premium, he went for it on fourth-and-4 from the New Orleans 40 instead of punting. It was a horrible decision. Roethlisberger's pass was incomplete, leaving the Saints with a short field. They turned that gift into a touchdown and a 13-3 lead.
After the three botched plays near the Saints' goal line, kicker Jeff Reed came on to kick the most unsatisfying 19-yard field goal since ...
Would you believe the last time the Steelers played in Cincinnati?
It was Sept. 27 last season. On a third-and-goal play from the Bengals' 1 early in the game, running back Willie Parker was stopped for no gain because guard Chris Kemoeatu missed his block. That was the game the Steelers' offense self-destructed -- wide receiver Santonio Holmes ran the wrong route and led to an interception and touchdown return for the Bengals and wide receiver Limas Sweed dropped what should have been an easy 34-yard touchdown pass -- in a 23-20 loss.
The third-down struggles were a bigger problem when the Steelers played the Bengals Nov. 15 last season at Heinz Field. They were 3 for 15, their worst conversion rate of the season. It's no coincidence they failed to score a touchdown and lost, 18-12, the first defeat in what became a five-game losing streak that sabotaged their season.
"They kind of think they have our number with their blitzes," Roethlisberger said.
Roethlisberger wasn't very good in that second game against the Bengals, his 51.5 passer rating the proof, his worst of the 2009 season. He was sacked four times. Roethlisberger wasn't much better against the Saints. He was sacked three times and had a 66.8 passer rating.
But Arians said Roethlisberger "probably is ahead of schedule" after missing the first four games this season because of his NFL suspension. "The hurry-up and red-zone [offenses] take a little more time for him to get down," Arians said. "It's hard to simulate the speed out there in practice and the field shrinks in the red zone."
The offensive line also should improve as soon as tonight. "Those guys have done a phenomenal job, all things considered," Arians said. Tackle Max Starks missed a start and Essex four because of ankle injuries. Tackle Flozell Adams limped off in each of the past two games with an ankle problem. Linemen were shuttled in and out to beat the heat and humidity at Tennessee and Tampa Bay.
"I don't think we have any more games in Florida," Arians said with some measure of relief.
Still, it comes down to making plays instead of mistakes.
"When we don't beat ourselves, we're OK," Arians said.
Especially on third down.
Ron Cook: firstname.lastname@example.org . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.