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Breaking down the Steelers improved third-down defense

The Steelers have deployed a new personnel package on third downs over the last two games, and so far it has paid off.

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming out of their bye week on a two game winning streak. While there are a number of factors which could be attributed to the last two victories, one area in which the Steelers have improved is their third-down defense. By using a different approach with the players they put on the field, so far the package has been working. This is the topic for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

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.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Just so everyone is on the same page, I am breaking down the numbers into the first four games of the season, and the last two games and Steelers have played. The reason for this is because of the personnel change the Steelers have made on many third downs since Week 5 against the Broncos.

In the first four games of the season, the Steelers gave up a combined 44.6% of third downs. The breakdown per game was 44.4% against Buffalo, 35.7% against Las Vegas, 33.3% against Cincinnati, and 60.0% against Green Bay. They were 56 total plays over those four games and the Steelers gave up 25 first downs. The breakdown is the Steelers gave up 17 first downs through the air on 23 completions on 37 attempts, and eight rushing first downs on 14 rushing attempts. The average distance to go in those games was 6.73 yards on third down. Additionally, the Steelers have surrendered four touchdowns on third down, one coming in each of their first four games.

On the positive side, the Steelers did force a fumble on one occasion against Buffalo and had four total sacks on third down— two against the Bills and two against the Packers. In all, the Steelers averaged 6.3 yards given up on third downs in the first four games.

As for the Steelers games in Week 5 and Week 6, the numbers are much better. Since deploying a new third-down defensive package, the Steelers have only surrendered 20.8% of third downs over the last two weeks. Looking per game, the Steelers surrendered 16.7% against Denver and 25.0% against Seattle. The average distance their opponent had to gain on third down was 7.36 yards and they gained an average of 6.0 yards. Additionally, the Steelers gave up no touchdowns on third down and had three sacks.

Although the new defensive package looks to really be doing the job, one weak point comes in rushes on third down. Only having two rushing attempts go against the Steelers on third down over the last two games, The total rushing yards surrendered were 75 yards. The reason for this is there was one third-down attempt rushing the ball for the Denver Broncos which went for 49 yards and one rushing attempt on third down against the Seahawks which went for 26 yards. But when it comes to defending the pass, the Steelers have only surrendered three first downs in the last two games despite allowing 12 completions on 19 attempts. So even if the Steelers are willing to give up the catch, they are not surrendering the yardage for a new set of downs.

So there are the numbers behind the Steelers improved results on third down on defense. Exactly what they been doing to get the job done? Let’s check the film.

The Film Line:

The Steelers success on third down has swung drastically from their first four games to their last two games. But as Dave mentioned, it’s mostly based on defending the pass in 3rd and medium to long yards. To dig into this we need to look back.

Steelers v Raiders, 3rd quarter, 7:09.

Hunter Renfrow is the second receiver from the top.

Hunter Renfrow beats Tre Norwood with a nice double move, slowing down to sell a lateral cut before accelerating upfield for the first down. But the story here is Derek Carr with all the room and time in the world. In the first half of the game, T.J. Watt was terrorizing Carr and driving him to get rid of the ball quickly and less accurately. With time in the pocket He was able to carve up the Steelers defense, extend drives and lead the Raiders to a win.

Steelers v Bengals, 1st quarter, 5:20.

Ja’Marr Chase is the receiver to the top of the screen.

Ja’Marr Chase runs a nice route, but look at Joe Burrow’s pocket. Burrow has pressure coming from Melvin Ingram (edge rusher to top of screen) but has a nice pocket to step up and throw in. Cameron Heyward comes across the formation to get in his face, but he can’t get there in time to disrupt the pass.

Steelers v Packers, 2nd quarter, 11:03.

Randle Cobb is the second receiver from the top of the screen.

A simple in route for Cobb that turns into a touchdown with a beautiful pass from Aaron Rogers. Look at Rogers’ pocket as he has all day. He can stand there, survey the field, and throw cleanly when he finds the throw he wants to take. Coverage is largely irrelevant if you give Aaron Rogers that much time and let him throw the ball cleanly. He’s too good.

The Steelers weren’t crashing the pocket, and when NFL quarterbacks can throw cleanly, almost all of them are great. Very few quarterbacks make it to the NFL without the ability to find an open receiver and make the throw when they have time and a clean pocket. I want you to go back and look at the previous three clips and watch the defensive tackle to the top of the screen. Look at the lack of pressure from that position, and how the opponent used that space. Especially the Bengals throw where they double Chris Wormley to drive him back and make sure that throwing lane is wide open for Burrows to hit Ja’Marr Chase.

Lastly, if you can find Joe Schobert (#93, he’s near the line of scrimmage) in each clip you can see him blitzing twice, and delivering nothing in terms of pressure.

The Steelers had to get more pressure on the quarterback to stop the third down conversions, and that meant mixing up the personnel in the front five in their dime sets.

Steelers v Seahawks, 1st quarter, 5:12.

Tyler Lockett is the receiver to the bottom of the screen.

Tre Norwood has a really nice pass break up here, but it isn’t just him generating this defensive play. I know there’s a big difference between Geno Smith and Aaron Rogers in talent level, I get that, but look what the pressure does to Smith on this throw. He is stepping backward with his front foot to get rid of the ball here. He doesn’t have his feet set, this is all arm. It’s thrown a bit early and there isn’t enough zip on it because Smith doesn’t have a good base, and Norwood gets to the ball.

Also, look at Robert Spillane (just below Cam Heyward) here. He is on the back. He comes up quick to hug blitz, and is able to still cover the back when he slips out of the pocket. Look at the right guard, who has to account for Spillane if he blitzes. Spillane doesn’t blitz, but it leaves the line one blocker short compared to the rushers.

Steelers v Seahawks, 1st quarter, 11:04.

Alex Highsmith is the edge rusher to the top of the screen.

The stunt between Heyward and Ingram doesn’t work here as the Seahawks triple team the duo, but that leaves Watt and Highsmith in 1v1 situations. Highsmith wins his and the pressure leads to a throw underneath when there’s a receiver going deep that is wide open. Cam Sutton is reading Smith’s eyes, and when he looks off that deep route, Sutton doesn’t cover it.

It works, because Smith has pressure on him and doesn’t have time to go back to that read. You can see Robert Spillane is a little less fluid in coverage than Joe Schobert, and we see that here as he collides with Terrell Edmunds on crossers.

The result of better pressure on third downs is quicker throws that aren’t thrown as well, and teams having to scheme to not get sacked or give up a big play.

Steelers v Broncos, 2nd quarter, 6:33.

The front five, bottom to top: Alex Highsmith, Melvin Ingram, Cameron Heyward, Robert Spillane, T.J. Watt.

This is third and goal. The Broncos throw a screen, essentially giving up on scoring a touchdown here. The Steelers double stunt into the middle, and that’s a ripe opportunity for a screen, but this just leads to a shorter field goal.

The Broncos had seen the Steelers third down pressure enough to call this play and settle for 3 points. This is winning football. When teams are just trying to survive your defense instead of attacking it, you’ve won the battle.

The Point:

With the Steelers defensive line missing Stephon Tuitt and Tyson Alualu, they are having to get creative to have success in areas that used to be a given strength of the team. Switching in Melvin Ingram for the second defensive tackle and swapping in Robert Spillane for Joe Schobert gave the Steelers more pass rush threat while increasing their vulnerability in coverage and to runs against that dime set. The Steelers aren’t just choosing this change, they had to. Coverage becomes irrelevant if you give the opposing quarterback enough time, and a good pass rush can cover for failings in coverage.