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Myth vs. Reality: The Pittsburgh Steelers 3rd & long defense

It’s time to rewrite the narrative.

NFL: Las Vegas Raiders at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

A myth only needs a moment to take hold. During the Pittsburgh Steelers game on Christmas Eve, early Raiders success on third down gave birth to a very un-merry complaint: The black and gold are lacking on third and long.

Myth: The Steelers have the league’s worst 3rd & long defense

The myth may feel right after watching Derek Carr convert three 3rd downs in one drive, including a 3rd & 16. But does the narrative hold up to the facts?

Let’s first take a look at the defense’s performance on 3rd down in general. In 2022, Steelers opponents have a 39.06% success rate on 3rd down. That’s ranked 17th in the league, almost exactly middle of the pack. In fact, from 2002 to 2021, the 3rd down conversion rate is 38.9%, so on this metric, the defense is generationally average.

Reality: Steelers Defense on 3rd & 10+

Now, let’s specifically look at 3rd and long situations. According to my own research, In 2022, NFL defenses have faced down and distance of 3rd and 10 or longer 1,612 times (I’m not including some kneel down or Hail Mary plays at the end of games). Offenses converted 327 of them (including conversions by referee). That’s a rate of 20.285%. In layman’s terms, every team, on average, has given up a little more than 10 conversions of at least 3rd and 10 this season. Even this year’s anemic Canada offense has converted 10 of them, so far.

For the 2022 Steelers, the defense has faced a 3rd & 10+ situation 52 times. Only 8 were successful. That’s a 15.385% conversion rate. So not only are the Steelers not the worst on 3rd and long, they’re well above average.

Let’s take a closer look at those 8 conversions. The first came in Week 1 against the Bengals. T.J. Watt actually sacked Burrow with 3:48 left in the fourth, but Cam Sutton was flagged for holding, giving Cincinnati an automatic first down. However, it led to no points, as Sutton redeemed himself with a fourth down breakup. A month later, the defense gave up two conversions to Josh Allen and the Bills. One was a 98-yard TD. The other drive ended with a Levi Wallace interception. In Week 10, Andy Dalton converted a 3rd and 10, but that drive fizzled out with a punt. In Week 15, Sam Darnold converted a 3rd & 10 and a 3rd & 17 in the same drive, leading to Carolina’s only touchdown. The final two came from Derek Carr on Christmas Eve. One led to a touchdown, the other a field goal. So the only game the Steelers lost while giving up a 3rd and long conversion was against Buffalo.

Basically, the defense in 3rd and long situations has not been detrimental to a game’s final outcome, so how could they be the worst? If anything, they’re closer to the opposite.

New Narrative: Steelers have most disruptive 3rd & long defense

Now let’s look at the flip side of Pittsburgh’s 3rd and long defense. In those same 52 plays where the Steelers defense faced a 3rd & 10+ situation, the result was a sack or interception 8 times. An additional sack was negated by the Cam Sutton penalty against Cincinnati. And another play was basically a sack, as Andy Dalton barely got back to the line of scrimmage before going down. Statistically, a disruptive play is more likely than a conversion on 3rd and long, so maybe it’s time to replace the 3rd and long myth.

Kyle Chrise is the host of the BTSC podcast “What Yinz Talkin’ Bout.” New episodes are released every Thursday. Check out the latest episode in the player below: