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Steelers Vertex: Third down defense changes script vs. the Browns

The Steelers getting off the field on third down in their Wild Card Game had more to do with the previous two plays.

Wild Card Round - Cleveland Browns v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Steelers 2020 postseason came to a conclusion almost as soon as it started. While it was a game most Steelers fans would like to forget, there are still some things which can be learned from the experience. With that said, it’s vertex time.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

The topic at hand this week is looking at the Steelers success, or lack thereof, in defending third down plays against the Browns Sunday night. There was good, there was bad, and there was definitely a pattern.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

The stats this week are going to be pretty precise and to the point. The Browns were officially 6 of 14 when it came to third down conversion against the Steelers on Sunday night. In looking at practical terms, I will use the numbers 6 of 13 because one of the third-down plays was a kneel down to end the game. So the Steelers gave up 6 third-down conversions while stopping the Browns on 7 occasions. When it comes to these plays, there was a obvious number with stuck out above anything else.

When looking at the distance the Browns were faced with when it came to third down, it was completely dependent on their success. With the Steelers sometimes known for giving up long third-down conversions, this was not the case Sunday night. Every time the Browns were faced with a third down and 8 yards or more, they were unsuccessful in converting the play. In fact, there was only one of the 5 third-down plays of 8 yards or more in which the Browns even gained any yards. Baker Mayfield was 0/4 on pass attempts on 3rd & 8 or above. The only positive yardage play the Browns had was a 13 yard run on a 3rd & 21 in the second quarter.

Where the Browns began to have success was when fewer yards were needed for the conversion. The Browns faced 3rd and 6 three times on the night and converted one of the three. Their only conversion was a 6-yard run by Baker Mayfield in the second quarter. The other two plays on 3rd & 6 were an incomplete pass and a 2-yard run by Nick Chubb with three minutes remaining in the game when the Browns were more worried about running clock than achieving the first down.

When the Browns were faced with 3rd & 5 or less, they converted all five of their attempts and scored two touchdowns. The Browns ran on 3rd & 3 in the first quarter where Kareem Hunt went 8 yards for a touchdown. Baker Mayfield was 4/4 for 77 yards on 3rd & 5 or less, which also included a 40-yard touchdown pass to Jarvis Landry.

In essence, when the Browns were 3rd & 5 or less they converted and continued their drive or, even worse, scored a touchdown. When the Browns had 6 yards to go they were 1 of 3 with the only conversion being a quarterback run. When the Steelers were able to keep the Browns in 3rd & 8 or more, they stopped them on all 5 attempts.

So what does this mean? That’s up to Geoffrey to answer by breaking down the film.

The Film Line:

The gap in success for the Browns on third down isn’t hard to explain, it all starts with the run game.

1st quarter, 2:01, 3rd and 3. Kareem Hunt is the running back.

The Browns are first, and foremost, a running team. They do a great job running the ball, and they have two Pro Bowl backs to spread the carries between. The run threat for the Browns is key to their offense, and their incredible success on 3rd & 5 or less against the Steelers.

The problem with 3rd & 5 or less is the Browns willingness to go for it on 4th and 2. With 2 yards or less to go on 4th down, the Browns went for it 14 out of 21 times this season. The conversion rate wasn’t spectacular, but their willingness to try boosts the run threat on third down substantially.

1st quarter, 9:55, 3rd and 4. Jarvis Landry is in motion to start the play.

The key to this play is Minkah Fitzpatrick and Mike HIlton. Hilton is in man, and follows Landry’s motion. Hilton hurries to get outside leverage on Landry, and gets beat inside. There’s a reason he was going for outside leverage, and that is Minkah Fitzpatrick is playing the hook/slant zone. The problem is, Minkah Fitzpatrick is up on the line of scrimmage because of the threat of a run, and has to drop to that zone from right at the line of scrimmage. That lets Baker Mayfield throw the ball right over his head to Landry, who shakes both Edmunds and Hilton to score.

Baker Mayfield is really good on play action passes and on short yardage downs. When the run game is setting him up for success, he does a great job of taking advantage.

2nd quarter, 1:28, 3rd and 6.

At 3rd & 6, the Steelers aren’t as worried about the run, they cover and rush. On this play Mayfield is able to scramble and takes a hit to get the first down, but that was the only first down the Browns would convert of 6 yard or longer.

4th quarter, 14:24, 3rd and 2. Jarvis Landry is the second receiver from the top, Robert Spillane is lined up across from him.

This play has gotten a lot of attention because of the linebacker on a receiver, but look at Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers are essentially doubling Jarvis Landry on this play, relying on Minkah Fitzpatrick to help Spillane shut down the Browns #1 receiver. Teams did this to Antonio Brown when the Steelers moved him inside, they would put a bigger player on him, with help to either side from defensive backs. This isn’t Spillane vs Landry straight up.

The problem is Fitzpatrick is also worried about T.J. Watt if his route goes inside, and he bites on that route with a nice shoulder and head fake, Landry lands his patented push off on Spillane and he’s open.

The reason the Steelers are in trouble here is the Browns are in a heavy set with one wide receiver in the game. If they bring Sutton inside to cover Landry and have both Spillane and Watt way outside the box, you are begging for a quick rub route or a quarterback keeper for the first down. They only need 2 yards. The Steelers answer is to leverage Minkah Fitzpatrick, and this time it didn’t work.

The Point:

In order for the Steelers to have success against the Cleveland Browns on third down in their playoff matchup, it was winning early on first and second down to set up a longer chance which made the difference each time. With the Browns failing to convert anything longer than 6 yards, it was the threat of the running game which opened up their short passing attack and allowed for conversions. Had the Steelers kept the Browns behind the chains on early downs, whether by stops or even the rare playoff sack, they might have been able to hold them off enough late in the game to complete to come back.