Here’s an interesting stat for you: would you believe that, statistically speaking, the Pittsburgh Steelers have the best run defense on first down in the league? According to ESPN, and verified by Pro Football Reference, it’s true.
A graphic posted by the former last night lists the Steelers as allowing the fewest yards per attempt this season on runs that occur on first down, just 3.4 yards. According to Pro Football Reference, the more exact figure is 3.42 yards, and the New Orleans Saints are not far behind them at 3.46 yards, but nevertheless.
STOPPING THE RUN on 1st Down helps set up a Defense for success.
Both the #DallasCowboys and #TitanUp will need to keep this up tonight on #MNF #TENvsDAL
#HereWeGo #GoSaints #Texans #BeRedSeeRed #DUUUVAL #OnePride #ChiefsKingdom #RaiderNation pic.twitter.com/vMBpXGM3fV
— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) November 6, 2018
Interestingly enough, however, they allow a high volume of first-down rushes on first down. 17 percent of opposing rushes on first down have gained enough yardage to move the chains, which is the 12th-highest percentage in the league.
The Steelers have allowed 10 run of 10 yards or more on first down so far this season, and four of them have come over the past two weeks, though only one on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. That was a 10-yard run by Gus Edwards early in the first quarter. As you might guess, the other three were touchdowns, all of them within two yards on first and goal.
Of the 106 rushes that the Steelers have seen on first down so far this year, though, four have been kneeldowns, and if you take those out, the team is averaging 3.59 yards per rush on first down. But they have 13 tackles for loss on first down, and another 11 for no gain, so about 23.5 percent of opponents’ runs on first down leave them no closer to a first down than when they started.
Another 10 rushes gained just one yard on first-and-10 plays, and 15 gained only two. 19 more picked up four yards or fewer. So 68 of 102 carries on first downs for opponents gained four yards or fewer that resulted in an unsuccessful play for the offense.
That’s exactly two thirds, meaning that opponents only average a successful first-down run just once every three carries against the Steelers. I’m not going to go through every single team’s entire list of first-down runs, but I’m going to guess that that compares pretty favorably.
Conversely, the Steelers offensively average 4.94 yards per rush on first down with 22 percent of those runs gaining another first down or scoring, including seven touchdowns scored on the ground on first down—one of them from Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday.
They also have 16 rushes of 10 yards or more on first down, all of them by James Conner. Conner has 502 yards on 96 first-down attempts, averaging 5.23 yards per carry with 23 first downs or touchdowns (six of the latter). But all this deserves its own topic.