The Pittsburgh Steelers defense had both one of its best and one of its worst performances of the season, depending on which statistic you look at. While they only gave up nine points on the scoreboard—which doesn’t account for a dropped touchdown—they gave up close to 400 yards through the air.
How was it that the defense allowed the Cleveland Browns to gain so much yardage? A big chunk of the answer comes to how the Steelers played on second- and third-and-long situations. Though they were at times successful in defending these plays, they often gave up a lot of ground in doing so.
During Sunday’s game, the Browns ran 19 plays on second and third down on which they had eight or more yards to gain, with 11 on second down and eight on third down. Outside of one running play on second and 10 from their own one-yard line, Johnny Manziel dropped back to pass on 18 occasions.
In doing so, he completed 13 of 17 passes for 182 yards, taking one sack in the process. That works out to an average of 10.7 yards per pass attempt. Overall, the Browns gained 9.2 yards per play on plays in which they needed eight or more yards to go after first down.
Those numbers include one big explosive play on a third and nine early in the game, on which he rolled out to his left and hit Travis Benjamin for 61 yards. Manziel also hit on a 21-yarder in the middle of the fourth quarter, giving him two explosive plays on unfavorable down-and-distance plays.
Most concerning is the fact that the Steelers gave up first downs on two separate occasions on which the Browns needed to gain 14 yards. On second and 14 early in the second quarter, Gary Barnidge beat Ryan Shazier handily to the sideline, with Manziel finding him for 17 yards.
Earlier, toward the end of the first quarter, Manziel converted on third and 14 after hitting Brian Hartline taking advantage of a gap in the zone coverage, again for 17 yards. It is with great fortune that the subsequent third-and-10 play resulted in just a four-yard gain.
There were other incidences of giving up chunks on favorable down-and-distance situations as well, such as a 15-yard reception on second and 17 early in the first half, which put the Browns in a manageable third-down situation after a first-down sack. Manziel connected with Barnidge for five yards on third and two.
Even on the most unlikely plays—instances of third and 19, 18, and 15—the defense still gave up gains of 12, 11, and nine yards, respectively. Each third-down conversion attempt failed, but these three plays added 32 yards to the Browns’ passing total.
Numbers are just numbers, of course, and what matters is the win. And if a 16-yard reception on third and 17 results in a punt, it ultimately matters little. But you would still like to see the Steelers do a better job of taking advantage of such favorable down-and-distance, situational opportunities.