Through six games of the season, the Pittsburgh Steelers are allowing a third-down conversion rate of 42 percent, surrendering conversions on 34 of the 81 third-down situations that they have faced. That ranks 18th in the NFL, but considering the fact that they were near the bottom two weeks ago, that’s a pretty nice little jump.
The Steelers allowed the Philadelphia Eagles to convert 10 out of 14 third-down attempts in that game, which at the time put them over 50 percent on the season. In the past two games, however, they have held the Cleveland Browns to 1-for-12 and the Tennessee Titans to 5-for-13, some pretty strong numbers, and just 24 percent over the two-game span. They’ve clearing been doing something that has worked.
“We just put a lot of emphasis on it”, Terrell Edmunds told reporters on Monday. “Earlier in the year, our third-down defense wasn’t the best, so we had to come out there and we just had to work hard in practice, work on our drops in practice, work on our man coverage in practice, because we know we can’t win games if we keep giving up third downs”.
“I think one game we gave up 8 of 12 or something like that”, (again, it was actually 10 of 14), “and that’s not good at all. So we just put heavy emphasis on that, continue to work on it, and now we’re shutting them down on third down, and we can get off the field and put the ball back in our offense’s hands”.
The Steelers need to keep up this level of play on possession downs, of course. Even now, as mentioned, they are in the bottom half of the league. There are 12 teams allowing under 40 percent of their third-down conversion attempts to be successful against them, and that includes their upcoming opponent, the Baltimore Ravens, allowing under 35 percent.
Mike Tomlin talks about situational football a lot, but on the season, the Steelers are not winning the situational downs on defense. They rank 18th on third down, and are even worse in the red zone, allowing two thirds of opponents’ trips inside the 20 to score touchdowns, which ranks tied for 20th.
The Ravens, however, rank 30th in spite of the fact that they are first overall in scoring defense, so context matters. If you rarely let people into the red zone but give up touchdowns when you do, it’s better than the alternative of constantly allowing people into the red zone but stopping a good percentage of them.
The good news is that the tide seems to be turning on the possession-downs front. The Titans and Browns went 3-for-3 in the red zone, however, so there is still room to grow. That’s concerning and exciting at the same time.