Head to head: Steelers WR Emmanuel Sanders vs. Eagles CB Brandon Boykin
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No National Football League team can come close to matching the Steelers success on third down, especially the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles are having a hard enough time on first and second downs, let alone third, scoring just 66 points in four games despite having an offense that features game-breakers such as quarterback Michael Vick, receiver DeSean Jackson and former Pitt running back LeSean McCoy.
Not the Steelers.
They lead the league in third-down conversions (27 of 48), a rate of 56.3 percent that is nearly 10 points higher than the next closest team (Atlanta, 46.9).
The reason, of course, is simple: Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is completing 75 percent of his passes, has a passer rating of 145.1 and has thrown five of his eight touchdowns on third down, numbers that lead the NFL. Those conversions have allowed the Steelers to lead the league in average time of possession (35:59), as well.
The offense also has been able to put together scoring drives on the last possession of the first half and the opening possession of the second half in all three games -- an objective most teams like to accomplish to set a tone and build momentum.
"The number one thing is winning," offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. "You've got to win the game. Number two, you've got to convert third downs, you've got to score in the red zone and you'd like to possess the ball. We did it in the last three games. We possessed the ball better than anybody in the league. It didn't translate to wins."
Roethlisberger is operating at an uncanny and dizzying pace on third down, and his primary targets in those situations have been wide receivers Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders.
Wallace has caught his three touchdowns on third down; Sanders has six of his 10 catches on third down. That doesn't include tight end Heath Miller, who has two of his four touchdown catches on third down.
That, though, will be put to the test today against the Philadelphia Eagles, who rank second in the league in third-down defense.
The Eagles have allowed opponents to convert 14 of 52 third downs (26.9 percent). That is more than 20 points lower than the Steelers, who have allowed opponents to convert 16 of 33 times on third down (48.5 percent).
Part of the reason for the Eagles' third-down success are Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, two sticky cornerbacks who are asked to single cover wide receivers while the Eagles employ multiple rushers and blitzers against the quarterback.
But they also utilize rookie corner Brandon Boykin as the nickel back in the slot on third down -- a matchup the Steelers might try to exploit with Sanders.
"I think their entire secondary is very good," Haley said. "It's right up there with the N.Y. Jets. Brandon Boykin has come in and done a very good job in the slot. Everybody is going to have to do their thing to win."
First Published October 7, 2012 12:06 am