Prior to the game against the Minnesota Vikings, I wrote about how the Pittsburgh Steelers lack of defensive sacks and turnovers was tied to them not being ahead on the scoreboard and I warned that it was unlikely to change until the offense started to get leads, especially in the second half of games. Tuesday, head coach Mike Tomlin confirmed what I wrote during his interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
“Really, in some instances, game circumstances has dictated that,” said Tomlin, when asked about the lack of turnovers his defense has created so far this season. “I think people play differently when they play with the lead and we’ve been behind quite a bit this year.”
Tomlin was then asked about the lack of sacks the team has so far this season and once again he pointed to the things I pointed out a few weeks ago.
“An element of it sometimes is game circumstances and situations when you’re playing with the lead, you don’t take the calculated risk associated with creating those type of opportunities, and your capable of playing it closer to the vest.”
Defenses run by Dick LeBeau over the years have always relied on the offense to make them better. The bigger the lead, especially in the second half of games, the more sacks and turnovers are generally produced.
In addition to that, LeBeau’s defenses are generally more effective at producing sacks or turnovers when they put opposing quarterbacks in third down and long situations. There haven’t been enough of those through the first four games of the season, however.
According to Pro Football Reference, the Steelers defense has only set up 32 third downs with six or more yards to go all season. That ties them for second to last in the league in that category. While they have been stellar on those downs (21.9%), they just aren’t getting enough of meaningful ones to matter.
In fact, 6 of those 32 third and longs have come in the fourth quarter of games when the Steelers are behind on the scoreboard by more than two scores with less than eight minutes remaining the game. No offense is going to press the issue in those situations. That leaves a total of 26 meaningful third down and longs the defense has faced all season. To make maters worse, they have only faced 58 third downs all season.
So will this improve Sunday against the New York Jets? Well, the Jets do have a rookie quarterback in Geno Smith and he has thrown eight interceptions, and has been sacked 18 times so far this season. However, I should point out that Smith has been solid so far this season when facing third down and more than six yards to go. Believe or not, the West Virginia product has a 71.4% completion percentage in those situations and he has only been sacked once. Oh yeah, no interceptions.
Regardless, the Steelers have to stop the run first and keep the Jets offense behind the chains as usual. In addition, the Steelers offense has to put points on the board early. If they don’t, the Steelers will likely be 0-5.