It’s probably a stretch to call the sixth game of the season a “must-win” for the Steelers. But at 2-2-1 with a contest at division-leading Cincinnati (4-1) on Sunday, this is about as close as you can get.
A win puts the Steelers just a half-game back of the AFC North lead. A loss drops them two and a half back with an 0-2-1 mark in the division. “Must-win?” Maybe not. “Really really really need to win to make their path to the playoffs more realistic?” Absolutely.
I would guess Mike Tomlin has hammered this message home all week. The message is clear. What may be murkier is how the message will be realized. The Bengals are 2-0 at home this year with an impressive win over Baltimore and a momentum-building comeback from seventeen points down last Sunday against then 3-1 Miami. The Steelers will need to play their best game of the season if they are to leave the not-so-friendly confines of Paul Brown Stadium with their division title hopes in tact.
In laying a blueprint for how they can do this, two factors are worth emphasizing: 3rd down conversions and 4th quarter execution. Let’s break down how the Steelers success in these areas (or lack thereof) could determine Sunday’s outcome.
3RD DOWN CONVERSIONS
Coaches and pundits often opine that turnover ratio is the most important statistic in football. We’ve heard a thousand times that the team that wins the turnover battle usually wins the football game. This is true. But nipping at the heels of turnover ratio in terms of statistical importance is success on 3rd down. The team that can get off the field on defense, or conversely, the team that can keep drives alive by converting on 3rd downs wins nearly as often as the team that best protects the football.
Consider these numbers: in 2017, the offenses with the best 3rd down conversion rates were Atlanta (44.7%), Pittsburgh (44.0) and Minnesota (43.5). Those teams combined to go 36-12. The three worst 3rd down offenses belonged to the Giants, Washington and Miami, who went 16-32. This season, a trio of first place teams - the Rams, Kansas City and Jacksonville - are among the best while three teams with losing records - Dallas, Arizona and Buffalo - have been the least successful.
If we flip to the defensive side of the ball, we find similar results. The best defenses at getting off of the field on 3rd down in 2017 were Minnesota, Philly and Jacksonville, all playoff teams. The worst - San Fran, Indy and Tampa - combined to go 15-33. This year the best have been Baltimore, KC and Minnesota (10-4-1) while the worst have been Buffalo, Cincy and Atlanta (7-8).
Obviously, 3rd down success is integral to overall team success. The outlier in all of these numbers is the Bengals, who are 4-1 despite allowing opponents to succeed on 52.7% of 3rd down attempts so far this season. On offense, Cincy has converted 40.7% of their 3rd downs, which puts them in the middle of the pack league-wide.
The Steelers rank 18th defensively, allowing opponents a 39% 3rd down conversion rate, and are 16th offensively, converting 38% of their own 3rd downs. That mediocrity is befitting of their 2-2-1 record. How, then, have the Bengals gotten to 4-1 while being bad on 3rd downs on defense and average on offense? To answer that, let’s look at another set of numbers.
4TH QUARTER SUCCESS
Cincinnati stormed back from a 17-3 deficit by outscoring Miami 24-0 in the 4th quarter last week. They began the quarter with an eight play, 71 yard touchdown drive in which they converted both of their third downs. That cut the lead to 17-10. On Miami’s ensuing possession, defensive lineman Michael Johnson returned an interception 22 yards to tie the game. The Bengals then forced a punt and drove 62 yards for a go-ahead field goal, keeping the drive alive on a 3rd and 13 conversion from Andy Dalton to AJ Green. Miami got the ball back, and on a 3rd and 17, the Bengals’ Carlos Dunlap forced a fumbled that was returned for another defensive touchdown, cementing the 27-17 win.
A week earlier, in their 37-36 last second win against Atlanta, the Bengals converted two 4th downs on the game-winning drive that culminated in a Green touchdown with 0:07 remaining. In their season-opening win at Indy, Cincy trailed 23-17 entering the 4th before outscoring the Colts 17-0 to win 34-23. The clinching touchdown was an 83 yard fumble return in the final minute with Indy driving for the potential winning score. The fumble return occurred on (wait for it)... a 3rd down. In all, the Bengals have outscored their opponents 56-18 in the 4th quarter and have converted a host of 3rd and 4th downs while getting key 3rd down stops on defense. In short, they have been at their best in the most crucial situations.
As for the Steelers, the 4th quarter has not been as kind. Pittsburgh has been outscored 51-23 in 4th quarters this season, including a late meltdown against the Browns in the season-opener, a near meltdown at Tampa Bay and a display of utter incompetence against Baltimore. In those three games, the 4th quarter numbers are gruesome: the Steelers ran 50 total plays for 120 yards and turned it over three times; their opponents ran 61 plays for 373 yards and turned it over once. Pittsburgh went 2-11 on 3rd downs on offense (18%), while allowing their opponents to convert 6 of 11 third (and fourth) down opportunities (54%). The Steelers were outscored in the 4th quarter of those contests 37-0.
The numbers are a little better against Kansas City and Atlanta but not enough to disrupt the narrative: the Steelers have played poorly late in games this season while Cincinnati has elevated its play, particularly on 3rd and 4th downs. If Sunday is a close game heading to the 4th quarter (as I expect it to be), the Bengals have a clear advantage.
HOW CAN THE STEELERS REVERSE THE TREND AND PLAY A STRONG 4TH QUARTER?
Converting 3rd downs would certainly help. That 2-11 figure against Cleveland, Tampa and Baltimore includes one successful passing conversion in nine attempts. Of those nine attempts, seven were targets to Antonio Brown. If I’m game-planning against Pittsburgh, that jumps out at me. Late in games, the Steelers are forcing the ball to AB.
One can assume, then, that defenses will help on or rotate their coverage towards Brown. This should open up one-on-one opportunities for other receivers. As Jeff wrote about recently, Juju Smith-Schuster has been the NFL’s most productive receiver from the slot this season. The Steelers should look to take advantage of this, where a favorable matchup against a nickel corner like Darqueze Dennard awaits. I like this matchup on a crucial 3rd down much better than targeting Brown against Dre Kirkpatrick or William Jackson with either zone help underneath or man help over the top. When everyone in the stadium knows where the ball is going, chances are pretty good the defense can stop it. If watching the Patriots over the years has taught us anything, it should be that the smart play doesn’t necessarily involve the best player but the best matchup.
Defensively, the Steelers must defend the sticks to win on 3rd down. When you read the play-by-play of the Cincinnati offense this season, you see a whole bunch of “Andy Dalton pass short right/left/middle to Boyd/Green/Bernard/etc.” This is especially true on 3rd downs, where the Bengals scheme to win the sticks. If it’s 3rd and 7, Cincy is pushing the safeties deep with vertical routes so they can hit the intermediate stuff just beyond the markers. If you give them soft corners, they’re running eight yard hitches or speed outs. If you bring the blitz, they throw the swings and checkdowns. To wit: on the 16 play, 75 yard drive that beat Atlanta, Dalton went 7-11 for 65 yards with, as per ESPN’s Gamecast, every throw but one described as “short” (the one long pass was an incompletion to Green).
The short passing game, then, is Dalton’s comfort zone. Playing soft zone and backpeddling against him seems like a recipe for disaster. Whatever the Steelers typically do in late-game 3rd down situations, they should change it up. Press the Bengal receivers. Or drop eight and build a (steel) curtain at the sticks. Dare Cincy to throw the deep ball. A soft defense will be death by a thousand cuts. The Steelers need to defend the underneath zones aggressively and challenge their corners (and their pass rushers) to make big plays.
One last thought: in their last matchup, a 23-20 Steelers come-from-behind win in December, the Bengals targeted AJ Green 16 times. He caught only 7 of those throws for 77 yards, but two were red zone touchdowns. Just as the Steelers like to get the ball to Brown in big spots, the Bengals favor Green. The job of shadowing Green will likely fall to Joe Haden, who did an excellent job limiting Atlanta’s Julio Jones last week. No matter how Haden does against Green, the Steelers would be wise to give Cincinnati multiple looks late in the game to keep the Bengals guessing. Dropping a safety into the alley to Green’s side of the field will disrupt the timing on the short and intermediate routes Dalton favors, allowing Haden to play over the top more to defend vertical threats. The Steelers may want to keep something like this in their pocket for those crucial late situations and make the Bengals offensive staff adjust on the fly. Keith Butler and Mike Tomlin are going to have to play the long game and not show all of their moves early in anticipation of a tightly-contested football game.
Will breaking tendencies on both sides of the ball so the Steelers can excel in crucial situations be enough to win a divisional dogfight on the road? I don’t know. In games against familiar opponents, where tendencies are often exploited, it can’t hurt. Whatever the Steelers choose to do, they need to find a way to be efficient on 3rd downs and in the 4th quarter if they hope to keep their AFC North title hopes alive. Two and a half back with ten to go isn’t a death sentence. It just might feel like one, though.