One of the biggest issues that haunted the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense a year ago—other than lack of a pass rush, the inability to create turnovers, and giving up an inordinate number of big plays, of course—was getting off the field on third downs.
Last year, the Steelers allowed 91 of the 230 third downs that they faced to be converted, a rate of 40 percent, which ranked them 22nd in the league. They also allowed nine of 20 fourth-down plays they faced to be converted at a 45 percent conversion rate, 16th in the league.
Last week in their preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers, they allowed five of 15 third downs to be converted, in addition to the one fourth down attempt. We will take a look at most of the third downs converted, noting that they occurred throughout the game, with varying personnel.
Only one of the five third downs was converted against the first-team personnel, though so too did the fourth-down conversion, which I still say was a generous spot. This particular version was somewhat disheartening from the opening drive, following the fourth-down conversion.
On first down, Brett Keisel hit Derek Anderson’s arm to force an incompletion. On second down, in the big nickel, the defensive line stuffed the run to force a third and nine. On third down, as seen above, the Steelers blitzed both inside linebackers up the middle, which left the left flank vulnerable to a screen.
Jarvis Jones had the best chance to make a tackle behind the line of scrimmage, but it was a difficult angle. The Panthers screened the play well, blocking Keisel and Ike Taylor out of the play. The inside linebackers had to chase the play down from the backfield.
Late in the third quarter, the Steelers got the Panthers defense into a third and six situation near midfield. Antwon Blake had good coverage down the field, and it seemed all was well, but Vince Williams was flagged for roughing the passer, hitting the quarterback below the knee, converting the first down via penalty.
Midway through the third quarter, the Panthers were in third down with five yards to go from their own 35. Dayonne Nunley had one-on-one coverage on the slot receiver. Despite pressure on the quarterback, the receiver was able to turn the corner in front of Nunley, and Joe Webb found him on the crossing route for 10 yards.
Although this third down wasn’t converted, it’s still a worrying display. Following a false start, the Panthers had to go 17 yards for the first down. With Chris Carter rushing wide off the right edge and Terence Garvin being pulled out in coverage, there was left a chasm for Webb to vacate the pocket. He seized the opportunity, and Carter had to chase him down after 15 yards.
Late in the fourth quarter, running back Fozzy Whittaker somehow pushed his way for 10 yards on a third and five carry. There were three Panthers linemen in the space between two defenders, and he simply bowled his way through his own linemen to create his lane. He used that momentum to run through Garvin and churned his legs until he was well past the first-down marker.