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The Steelers’ 3rd Down woes underscore a miserable night in New England

The Pittsburgh Steelers had plenty of issues vs. the Patriots in Week 1, but their 3rd down failures were a large part of those issues.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at New England Patriots David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not going to lie. This wasn’t an article I particularly enjoyed writing. Rehashing the gory details of the Pittsburgh Steelers 33-3 opening-night loss to the Patriots was a bit like repeatedly punching myself in the groin. Some people might be into that sort of thing, but not me.

I could roll out a bunch of cliches here about how the Patriots have our number in Foxboro, how it’s just one game or how there is never growth without discomfort. All of these things, to a degree, are true. The bigger truth is the Steelers didn’t look like a very good football team on Sunday night. With a solid Seattle Seahawks team coming to town in a few days, they need to get better in a hurry.

The list of culprits for the embarrassment in New England is long. On defense, the Steelers failed to generate a pass rush, got beat repeatedly in man coverage and didn’t tackle particularly well. On offense, they couldn’t block New England’s linebackers, couldn’t separate from their corners and couldn’t convert on third (or fourth) downs.

That last item -- third (and fourth) down conversions -- stands out in particular. Bill Parcells once famously said, “You are what your record says you are.” I will adapt his quote here to say the game on Sunday night was every bit the mismatch the scoreboard indicated. 33-3 was 33-3, no doubt about it. I’m not suggesting a play here or there could have altered the outcome. Still, had the Steelers been able to convert some of their early third downs on offense and sustain drives that either led to points or kept Tom Brady off the field, they could have nullified some of New England’s momentum and given themselves a puncher’s chance. Instead, they went 4-15 on third and fourth downs, including a putrid 0-4 on third/fourth and 1.

Let’s take a look at some of those situations and examine why they failed.

1st Quarter, 8:07 remaining, 0-0; 3rd and 6 at Pitt 39

The Steelers first third down opportunity came on their opening drive. After the defense started the game by forcing a New England punt, the Steelers took over at their own 12 yard line. They gained a couple of first downs by mixing underneath throws to Juju Smith-Schuster and James Conner with a couple of Conner runs. On a 2nd and 8 from the New England 37, running back Jaylen Samuels entered the game. The Steelers immediately ran the counter concept they had been so successful with in Pittsburgh last December when Samuels rushed for 146 yards as the starter in place of an injured Conner. Not surprisingly, New England was ready for it. Samuels gained two yards, setting up a 3rd and 6.

The Steelers aligned in an 11 personnel set with tight end Vance McDonald and Smith-Schuster lined up to the left of the formation and receivers Donte Moncrief and Johnny Holton stacked wide to the right:

The Patriots put ten defenders within three yards of the ball. They played cover-1 with a single safety fifteen yards deep in the middle of the field. Both sets of receivers were compressed and bunched, suggesting some sort of pick or crossing action. This is a good strategy versus man coverage and one the Patriots used effectively much of the night.

Smith-Schuster did in fact cross the field but there was no one to pick for him or run interference. Instead, McDonald ran a deep dig (an in cut at about 15 yards), Moncrief ran an out cut and Holton a straight go. This route, commonly referred to as Drive, is typically used as a zone-beater whereby the quarterback reads the drop of a linebacker and throws the cross or the dig based on his drop.

Curiously, the Steelers used it here against obvious man coverage. Ben Roethlisberger wound up chucking the vertical route to Johnny Holton, a player promoted from the practice squad just a day earlier. Holton got no separation against Patriots corner Jonathan Jones and Jones, to his credit, managed not to interfere:

I’m not sure why the Steelers didn’t check out of this route to a man-beater, nor am I sure why they elected to throw deep to an untested receiver on their first big offensive conversion attempt of the season. Why was Holton on the field in this spot to begin with rather than James Washington, who had a great pre-season and who practiced with the varsity offense all week while Holton ran the routes of Patriots receivers on the scout team? It was a curious initial third down call, to say the least.

The Steelers punted. The Patriots responded with their first scoring drive.

2nd quarter, 7:46 remaining, 10-0 NE; 3rd and 1 at Pitt 44

Down 10-0, the Steelers got a much-needed three-and-out by the defense and took over on their own 35. They had a chance here to seize some momentum by putting together a nice offensive drive. They ran Conner on consecutive plays for nine yards, setting up a 3rd and 1. On third down, they lined up in 11 personnel with JuJu Smith-Schuster and Vance McDonald, two physical blockers, compressed to the top of the formation. New England, in man coverage, once again put ten defenders within a few yards of the ball. The Steelers opted to run a toss play off of outside zone blocking using McDonald and Juju to seal the edge and the frontside linemen -- Alejandro Villanueva, Ramon Foster and Maurkice Pouncey -- to reach the players in their outside gap. Here is what the blocking was designed to look like:

New England, however, aligned linebacker Jamie Collins (58) in the B-gap between the guard and tackle, meaning Pouncey would have to snap the ball and then reach two full gaps to his left to cut Collins off. Pouncey is a great player but this was a near-impossible ask on a full-flow run play. The toss to Conner and the reach steps by the offensive linemen meant everything was flowing in the same direction. There was nothing to keep Collins from sprinting immediately to the football. With some misdirection, like a receiver in motion, or a down scheme from the playside linemen that muddied Collins’ read, Pouncey may have had a chance. Not with full flow, however. Collins shot through the open gap before Pouncey could get there and swallowed Conner up for a loss.

Once again, it’s hard to understand why the Steelers didn’t check to a different play. Perhaps they were discouraged from running between the tackles by the results on the previous series, where a 3rd and 1 inside zone play to Conner was stuffed for no gain. Still, the pre-snap alignment of the Patriots defense was conducive to an inside run. The Steelers had a hat-on-a-hat inside the box and could have easily run Conner in the A-gap to pick up the yard they needed. Whether Roethlisberger did not have the ability to check or simply didn’t diagnose the alignment of the defense is unclear. This play was doomed from the start, however. By not converting here, it began to feel as though the Steelers chances on the evening were doomed as well.

3rd quarter, 10:23 remaining, 20-0 NE; 3rd and goal at NE 1

Down 20-0 at halftime, the Steelers received the second half kickoff and embarked on their best drive of the night. This included a big 3rd down conversion on a beautifully thrown deep ball to James Washington for 45 yards to put them in the red zone.

Five plays later, the Steelers found themselves with a 3rd and goal at the New England 1. A touchdown here would have put them within two scores. They aligned in 11 personnel with a bunch set to the field and Smith-Schuster singled up to the short side. They ran a pick play-of sorts to the bunch, with McDonald coming from the outside to impede Ryan Switzer’s defender while Moncrief ran a fade. Juju, meanwhile, ran a “win” route whereby he simply tried to beat his defender inside. The routes looked like this:

The tricky Patriots, however, lined up in cover-1 but played the bunch in a match concept. This meant that safety Patrick Chung, lined up over McDonald, wouldn’t cover McDonald specifically but instead would take the first receiver out or to the flat. Devon McCourty, lined up over Moncrief, would take the first player vertical. And Jonathan Jones, lined up over Switzer, would take the first inside route.

The Patriots executed the coverage perfectly. Switzer went out and was matched by Chung. Moncrief went vertical and was matched by McCourty. And McDonald ran a whip route, where he went in and then pivoted back out, and had his route disrupted by linebacker Dont’a Hightower. Roethlisberger threw the vertical to Moncrief but the two miscommunicated. Moncrief was expecting a fade towards the back of the end zone (you can tell by how he looks over his inside shoulder for the ball) while Roethlisberger threw the ball towards the boundary as though he expected Moncrief to turn out.

It was another strange decision on a pivotal play that could have gotten the Steelers back in the game. Rather than design a play to get the ball to Smith-Schuster or use McDonald creatively to get a mismatch, or even get into a heavy formation with fullback Roosevelt Nix and run play-action to catch the Patriots off-balance, the Steelers ran a play which, a) was designed for Ryan Switzer, and b) ended up throwing to Moncrief, the player with the least amount of reps with Ben Roethlisberger of the four receivers on the field. It’s not surprising, then, that Moncrief and Roethlisberger miscommunicated. What is surprising is that Moncrief was targeted more than any Steelers receiver on the night, or that Holton (who, again, spent the week running the routes of Patriots receivers on the scout team offense) was on the field instead of Washington on the earlier third down attempt.

Regardless, a 14 play drive that consumed 74 yards and ate up the first five minutes of the third quarter yielded just three points. The failure to convert that third and goal and finish the long drive ended any hope of a comeback.

Looking Ahead

As disastrous as Sunday was, it is only one game. A win against Seattle will leave the Steelers 1-1, which, all things considered, is probably where most people expected them to be after two games. Seattle didn’t exactly light the world on fire in their opener, yielding 22 first downs to just 12 of their own and getting out-gained 429-233 in a 21-20 win at home against Cincinnati. Andy Dalton shredded the once-stout Seahawks secondary for 418 passing yards and the Bengals converted 40% of their third downs. The Seahawks are a good football team, but this game is certainly winnable.

Converting 3rd downs will be a huge factor. The failures the Steelers had in that area Sunday night were the product of several factors: relying on new and/or unproven players (Holton and Moncrief) to make plays in big moments; failing to check out of plays that were DOA based on the alignment of the Patriots defense; failures in execution, such as missed blocks, dropped balls and poor throws; and curious play-calling that failed to utilize the Steelers best offensive weapons. A great game-plan and great execution by the Patriots defense certainly contributed as well.

As a remedy to the problem, the Steelers may want to consider scheming plays to get guys like McDonald and Smith-Schuster the football. While Roethlisberger may enjoy the freedom of spreading the ball around in this post-Antonio Brown offense, getting it to proven players, especially early in the season as the young and new players develop, is integral. Should the Seahawks attempt to play a lot of press-man like New England did, offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner can motion Juju to create space pre-snap or put him inside on those bunch sets he likes where other players can run interference for him. Likewise, routes to the running backs that get them matched up on linebackers in space are an easy way to create opportunities. Low percentage one-on-one balls may have been great with AB. Without him, Fichtner will have to get more creative if the Steelers are to sustain drives by converting on third down.