2020 South Side Questions: Why Was Steelers’ 3rd-Down Defense So Bad?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are now into the regular season, following the most unique offseason in the NFL since at least World War II. While it didn’t involve a player lockout, teams still did not have physical access to their players, though they were at least able to meet with them virtually.

Even training camp looked much different from the norm, and a big part of that was the fact that there will be no games along the way to prepare for. Their first football game of the year was to be the opener against the New York Giants.

As the season progresses, however, there will be a number of questions that arise on a daily basis, and we will do our best to try to raise attention to them as they come along, in an effort to both point them out and to create discussion

Questions like, how will the players who are in new positions this year going to perform? Will the rookies be able to contribute significantly? How will Ben Roethlisberger look—and the other quarterbacks as well? Now, we even have questions about whether or not players will be in quarantine.

These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.

Question: What was the biggest reason that the Steelers’ third-down defense was so bad on Sunday?

Heading into week five, the Steelers had a pretty run-of-the-mill defense on third down, ranking in the middle of the pack in terms of stop percentage. They now rank tied for the fourth-worst third-down defense in the league, having allowed exactly half of their opponents’ third-down attempts to be converted into a new set of downs (and that doesn’t include first downs via penalty).

An abysmal showing against the Philadelphia Eagles was enough to transform them into a decidedly middling unit, by numbers, to one of the worst in the NFL, after they converted 10 of 14, including 10 in a row. It got to the point where it felt like a given that they would convert no matter the distance.

So what happened? It seemed to be any number of things. The zone coverage was porous. The cornerbacks did not make enough plays on the ball. Often dropping seven into coverage, the pass rush lacked on critical downs. And frankly, the Eagles, particularly Travis Fulgham, made some plays on great individual efforts.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the biggest problem was, or if there was one overarching issue, which makes it harder to correct something if something needs to be corrected. But one thing is for certain, and that is that they have to get better on possession downs, an area Mike Tomlin always emphasizes, before it becomes an Achilles heel and the cause of a defeat.

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