The Pittsburgh Steelers defense faced a couple of tasks today, looking to answer some lingering questions. Could they reorient themselves on third down? And could they create the splash plays to take more pressure off of the offense?
They didn’t take long answering those questions. The Cleveland Browns’ first third-down play of the game resulted in an interception by Minkah Fitzpatrick that was returned for a touchdown, his third defensive touchdown as a Steeler and the first of the year—his first takeaway of the year all told.
The third-down defense continued to pick up from there. On the Browns’ next possession, they went three and out for a second consecutive time, this play ending courtesy of Bud Dupree, who recorded a sack, the fourth consecutive game in which he has recorded at least half a sack.
This is the point at which the third-down defense fell apart last week, however. They stopped the Philadelphia Eagles for a pair of three and outs to start the game, but then allowed them to convert 10 in a row. That’s not what happened today.
While the Browns started to have a bit more offensive success in terms of moving the ball, their drives still ended prematurely in punts. The first was a long incompletion to Odell Beckham, with Joe Haden forcing him out of bounds. Baker Mayfield was under pressure to force an incompletion to end the fourth drive.
Things kept happening from there. The next time the Browns faced a third-down situation, it looked as though Mayfield may escape pressure in order to make a play after slipping out of a good rush by T.J. Watt, but while he got the ball out, it landed in the hands of Cameron Sutton for the Steelers’ second interception of the game, and eighth of the year.
Of course it couldn’t stay perfect, and it’s fitting that the Browns’ first third-down conversion of the game came via penalty. It was third and four and Watt jumped offside with the play clock at zero. He argued for a delay of game, but did not get it.
They finally did get one conversion shortly before the end of the first half with a screen pass to running back Kareem Hunt, and even that was a fight, as he had to wrestle with Robert Spillane at the line to gain.
The Browns managed just one third-down conversion (other than via penalty) on seven tries in the first half, substantially better than last week’s performance for the defense. The first third down of the second half came on third and 18, and Stephon Tuitt had a tackle for loss that forced a fumble.
The culmination was a third-down stop just short of the line to gain that led to a fourth-down stuff of Hunt that gave the offense great field position at the 28.
The Steelers weren’t done with that. They got another fourth-down stuff with about six minutes to play. There is no question that the unit’s performance on possession downs was the critical component in this game. At that point, Mason Rudolph was in, and it was all over. Cleveland went just 1-for-12 on third down, and 0-for-2 on fourth down on top of that.