While the quality of opponent has to be taken into consideration, any time you can perform as the Pittsburgh Steelers did against the Cincinnati Bengals on third down on defense is quite an achievement. No, the Bengals are not one of the great teams in the league right now, and they were down their starting running back and both starting tackles, but they were also not a bad third-down team.
Entering the game, the Bengals had converted 48 times on 113 third-down situations through eight games in 2020, a 42.5 percent conversion rate that ranked as the 17th-best in the NFL, or right in the middle of the pack.
The Steelers shut them out on third down through the first three quarters of the game. Entering the fourth quarter, they were 0-10 on third down, though it should be noted that they did convert once by then on fourth down, and that was for a touchdown.
This is really notable because this is actually an area on defense in which the Steelers had not been great. Through the first eight games, they ranked 20th as a defense in terms of stopping their opponents on third down, allowing 50 conversions on 113 attempts, or 44.2 percent.
Pittsburgh has been a streaky defense on third down. They have had some great games and some terrible games. A week before holding the Cleveland Browns to one of 12 on third down, they allowed the Philadelphia Eagles to convert 10 out of 14, including 10 in a row, which allowed them to make it a two-point game in the fourth quarter.
The Bengals’ spectacularly bad third-down offense on Sunday was crucial in the Steelers keeping Joe Burrow and company bottle up, and it didn’t end when the fourth quarter began. After a great punt pinned them down inside the five, they tried to run a screen pass that Bud Dupree was easily able to sniff out and stop, forcing a punt from their own end zone. And then Ray-Ray McCloud nearly broke the return for a touchdown.
By the end of the game, Cincinnati posted a goose egg in the conversion column on third down at 0-13, though they did convert on fourth down a couple of times. One was meaningful, the one one—not so much, a fake punt at the tail end of a blowout loss, 36-7. I don’t think they’ll be beating themselves up over that one.