Depending on which statistic you look at, you might say that the New England Patriots have a terrible defense. They give up the fourth-most yards per game in the entire NFL. They allow 5.9 yards per play, tied for second-worst. On third down, they are middle of the pack in getting off the field. They allow more yards per rush than any team, by far.
But when all is said and done, they rank fifth in the league in scoring defense, the only statistic that ultimately matters. And while they average 19.2 points allowed per game on the season, that looks considerably better in recent months.
The Patriots gave up 128 points over the course of the first four games of the season, surrendering an average of 32 points per game. They held their next eight opponents to 17 points or fewer before the Dolphins just put up 27.
But other those nine games, they gave up fewer total points than they did in just the first four combined, despite accounting for more than twice the amount of playing time. their 122 points surrendered over nine games yields an average points allowed of just 13.6. That’s scary.
How can the Patriots be so bad statistically in so many areas, yet allow so few points? Why, red zone defense, of course, coupled with a handful of timely turnovers and third-down stops. The closer teams get to scoring, the worse they fare.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are aware of this. “They’re the definition of a team that bends but doesn’t break”, Le’Veon Bell told Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “They technically are not very good in first and second downs. But on third downs they’re excellent. They get off the field. In the red zone, they get off the field”.
“The possessions downs and red zone is where they specialize, and we have to capitalize”, he said. And, fortunately, there is some good news in that department. For starters, they have put up over 30 points in three of their past four games after failing to do so once in their first nine.
Over the course of the past four games, the Steelers have converted 28 of 55 third-down opportunities, with a success rate of just over half. They are coming off their best performance of the season, going 12-for-18 against the Ravens. They have also gotten it done in the red zone more frequently.
A number of Steelers reflected on the team’s AFC Championship game loss to the Patriots, and what they must do better. While they converted nine of 15 third downs, many of them came late while down several scores. They went just one for three in the red zone, and zero-for-two in goal-to-go situations.
“When you do that those kinds of things, it’s going to be rough against a very good offense like they have”, Todd Haley said. The whole team knows the problem, and they hope they have the fix for it, but they’ll have to find out on Sunday.