According to Mark Twain, British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” So, why start off this post with that quote? Well, even though I love stats, I’m smart enough to know that they don’t always tell the truth and such is the case this year when it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers and their third down defense.
Currently, the Steelers defense is ranked fourth in the league when it comes to third down conversion percentage (36.0) and while that number looks great on paper, it really is worthless.
I’m only two paragraphs into this post and by now you should’ve already figured out why that stat is a damn lie and pretty much meaningless. For starters, the Steelers defense has faced a league-low 139 third downs so far this season and that’s because opposing offenses are regularly moving the chains or scoring a touchdown on either first or second down.
Let me put that into perspective for you with real numbers. The Steelers have faced a total of 546 first or second down plays so far this season and 27.8% of the time those plays have resulted in either a first down or a touchdown. In fact, opposing offenses are either moving the chains or scoring a touchdown 24.9% of the time on first down against the Steelers defense through 12 games and only the New Orleans Saints have a worst percentage than that.
Good defense begins on first down and being as the Steelers are so bad on that down (6.06 yards per play, 31st in the league), one would think that haven’t done well against the run on that down. You might be surprised to know that isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, the Steelers defense is only allowing 3.8 yards per carry on first downs so far this season and that’s seventh best in the league heading into Week 14.
Now that we have that stat out of the way, that leaves us with the Steelers pass defense as being the problem on first downs this season. Heading into Week 14, the Steelers defense is allowing 8.15 yards per dropback on first downs and only the Houston Texans have allowed more. In addition, 35.3% of the time those first down dropbacks resulted in either a first down or a touchdown. Sickening, isn’t it?
This Sunday the Steelers will play the Cincinnati Bengals and so far this season they have run the football 61% of the time on first downs. They’re averaging 4.82 yards per carry so far this season on first downs so it’s hard to imagine them not trying to run on the Steelers even though quarterback Andy Dalton has completed 69.9% of the first down passes that he’s attempted for an average gain of 6.90 yards.
If the Steelers are going to beat the Bengals on the road Sunday they’ll have to find away to make their third down conversion stat meaningful for a change. In the three games that the Bengals have lost this season they’ve were miserable on third downs. In fact, they converted just 4-of -37 (10.8%) third downs combined in those three loses. That particular statistic certainly doesn’t lie.