During his weekly post-game press conference, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin talked about how “there’s no such thing as an ugly win”, but that there are ugly aspects. The Steelers’ defense was very solid on third down and in the red zone, as he noted, but he also echoed the sentiment that they gave up too many yards between the 20s.
“We gave up too many yards at times between the 20s”, he said. “Defensively, we didn’t get off the field”, he continued acknowledging that it was not the third-down defense, but rather the first two downs. “We gave up some yards on first and second down. In some instances, they moved the ball between the 20s without having to utilize a third down or a third-down conversion. We’ve got to get better in that area”.
The numbers do back this up. The Bengals offense ran 16 plays on third down, converting only four of them. Andy Dalton completed just six of 14 pass attempts for 57 yards, averaging just over four yards per attempt, when their average distance to go was 5.56 yards. They did go one-for-two converting on the ground. The defense did record two pass deflection on third down.
First and second down were another matter. Combined, the Bengals ran 56 plays on the first two downs, picking up 339 yards of offense, averaging over six yards per play. They were especially successful on first down, where on 33 plays they averaged 6.4 yards per play. They still averaged 5.5 yards on 23 second-down plays.
Dalton completed 14 of 22 first-down passes for 194 yards, averaging 8.8 yards per pass attempt, and gaining seven first-downs. On the ground, however, the Bengals gained just 18 yards on 10 carries with no first-down runs.
On second down, the Bengals offense put up 110 yards through the air, with 10 completions on 17 pass attempts, averaging 6.5 yards per attempt, with six first downs. They also gained 17 yards on six carries, though non for a first down.
Overall, the Bengals converted 21.2 percent of their first-down offensive plays into another first down, and gained a new set of downs on 26.1 percent of their second-down plays, when their average distance to go was 7.3 yards.
Tomlin is right when he points to the issues that the Steelers defense is facing on first and second down, as seen by the sheer amount of yardage given up, as well as the yardage per play yielded. If the offense is gaining a new set of downs about half the time before they even reach a third-down play, then it is hard to get your defense off the field.
This will be a priority for the defense to work on moving forward, because even they must know that their third-down and red-zone defensive success is likely not sustainable. The Bengal were given six short-yardage third-down situations, and another three from intermediate range. Opposing teams will start to convert these opportunities at higher rates.