The Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense is certainly not among the elite of the elite—or whatever counts for ‘elite’ by today’s standards with the limitations of defensive play—but one thing that they have done quite well, and especially over the past two weeks, has been to force opposing offenses off the field without a first down at a good rate.
A week after forcing the Jacksonville Jaguars into something like eight drives in which they were forced to punt after failing to achieve a first down over three plays, the defense also recorded five three-and-outs out of 11 possessions against the Denver Broncos.
Although that comes with a caveat, because the final possession—number 11—consisted of three kneeldowns to end the game. But because I am led to believe that such a drive is included in the data I will reference below, it has to be included. Otherwise, they were successful in forcing a three-and-out on four of 10 possession, or 40 percent of the time.
According to ESPN, their recent performance in this category has vaulted them to near the top in the NFL in terms of the percentage of drives on which they are able to induce a three-and-out. According to their numbers, the Steelers have forced a three-and-out on 35.1 percent of their defensive drives so far this season, which is the fifth-best mark by percentage in the NFL.
The only four defenses who have done better in this category are the the New York Jets, the Minnesota Vikings, the Baltimore Ravens, and the Buffalo Bills, with the Jets leading the way by forcing a three-and-out on 38.3 percent of their defensive possessions. The Ravens are in second at 386.8, the Ravens third at 38.3, and the Bills third at 35.4.
One of the reasons they have been able to achieve this is due to the fact that, over the course of the season, they have been one of the better teams in scheming pressure on the quarterback, as evidenced by the fact that they came into this Week 12 game leading the league with 37 sacks.
Still, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of work to do, and one of the biggest issues the unit continues to face is a near ineptitude in terms of taking the ball away. The Steelers have among the worst turnover margins in the NFL, and it’s even worse if you look at their takeaways on a per-game basis, as many of them came in clusters, which are outliers.
It might be worth noting that the team has been better in producing three-and-outs in the second half, especially over the past two games. Four of their five from Sunday’s game occurred in the third and fourth quarters, for example, and a similar pattern could be observed for the win over the Jaguars.