If there is one thing that has been obvious about the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 2020 season more than anything else, to me, it is that so far, the defense is not the shutdown unit that it was last season. While they have some very good components, particularly their typically relentless pass rush, the reality is that the results have often not been there.
This has been a streaky unit so far, which was never more evident than two weeks ago in their week three victory over the Houston Texans, in which they allowed Houston to run up and down the field in the first half, with three touchdown drives, before shutting things down in the second.
The first half against the Philadelphia Eagles, an offense down its top two wide receivers and top two left tackles, looked a fair bit like the Texans’ first half, managing two touchdown drives. They threatened another before the half ran out on them.
Most worry within that is the fact that the Steelers were awful on third down. After forcing three-and-outs on their first two drives, they allowed the Eagles to convert their next six to end the half. That started with another three-play drive, except, on third and nine, they allowed running back Miles Sanders to escape for a 74-yard touchdown.
That opened the floodgates for terrible third-down play. Philadelphia converted twice on its next drive for a second touchdown, first and third and three, on which Carson Wentz completed under pressure for a nine-yard gain. He also drew a roughing call. Later inside the red zone, he hit Zach Ertz for a near-touchdown, setting up first and goal at the one.
The Steelers are only fortunate that the Eagles hurt themselves with clock management, as they converted in third down three times on their final possession of the half, including on third and 17 after a Cameron Heyward sack that should have been a three-and-out drive. Sanders later converted on third and one, and then Wentz ended the half with a deep shot 37-yarder down the right sideline to convert on third and 10—except they had no timeouts left and couldn’t spike the ball in time.
Unfortunately, the awful third-down defense did not end there. After Mike Hilton got a sack on first down, the Eagles converted on third and 12 on a deep shot for 31 yards, which eventually led to a Greg Ward touchdown on which he beat Joe Haden for the first touchdown the cornerback has allowed this season.
It’s fortunate that the Steelers chose this game to score their highest point total in quite a while, because the defense also gave up its most points of the season against the Eagles. And they continued to convert on third down, an eighth consecutive on third and eight, on another big play to Travis Fulgham. He ended the drive finally bringing the Eagles into within one possession with a third-down touchdown from the four-yard line.
It took all the way until the final few minutes of the fourth quarter for Haden to make a stop on Fulgham on third and five, a huge swing, as it led to a long field goal attempt that was wide right, preserving a two-point spread that would hold—and be added to.