The Pittsburgh Steelers kept the St. Louis Rams out of the end zone in a 12-6 victory in Week 3. Key to that effort was the ability of the defense to get off the field on third down. The Steelers managed to limit the Rams to 2/10 on third down conversions and 0/2 on fourth down conversions.
The Pittsburgh offense struggled to move the ball, scoring just twelve points in the game. This put a lot of pressure on the defense, and they stepped up to the challenge with disciplined zone coverage and fundamentally sound tackling in critical moments.
The Rams struggled to move the ball past midfield in the first half, running only four plays in Steelers' territory. Each time St. Louis approached the 50-yard line, the Pittsburgh defense came up with a big stop.
Here, facing a third-down-and six from their own 49-yard line, the Rams line up in a three wide, one-back set, with tight end Jared Cook in the slot right. The Steelers counter with their nickel package, using cornerback Ross Cockrell as the fifth defensive back.
Cook runs an intermediate out pattern to lure strong safety Will Allen out of the shallow zone, but Allen, a savvy 12-year veteran, knows he has help over the top from Cockrell.
Foles takes a three-step drop, and hits speedy wide receiver Tavon Austin in the flat, but Allen is anticipating the route and makes the tackle short of the sticks.
Allen isn't the biggest or the fastest safety in the NFL, but he has an exceptionally high football IQ. His ability to diagnose this play as it happened was crucial in forcing St. Louis to punt on this drive.
On their final drive of the first half, the Rams' offense finally managed to penetrate into Steelers' territory.
Facing third-down-and four from the Pittsburgh 31-yard line, St. Louis lines up in a spread formation, with Foles in the shotgun and running back Benjamin Cunningham to his left. The Steelers counter with their nickel package.
At the snap, Foles turns to his left in an attempt to look off Cockrell, who is in man coverage with wide receiver Kenny Britt. Britt runs a quick slant, but Cockrell isn't fooled, and he is able to break up the pass, forcing the Rams to attempt a 49-yard field goal.
Cockrell did an excellent job of maintaining tight coverage on this play, which put him in position to break up the pass. It appears the Steelers' coaching staff has taken a liking to the second-year pro out of Duke University. He played 24 defensive snaps in Week 3, and has moved ahead of cornerback Brandon Boykin on the team's depth chart.
On their first drive of the second half, the Rams line up in a three wide, one-back set with Cook in the slot right on third-down-and 18. The Steelers counter with a two-high safety look, with inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons patrolling the shallow middle of the field.
Instead of stepping up in the pocket and delivering a pass downfield, Foles decides to dump the ball off to Cunningham in the flat. Cunningham's juke move causes two missed tackles before he's finally brought down from behind by defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
Watch how quickly Tuitt disengages from the blockers, turns, and runs up field to make the tackle. At 6' 6", 303 lbs., he is incredibly fluid and agile for his size. His relentless pursuit on this play limits Cunningham to 12-yard gain, and prevents the St. Louis offense from moving the chains.
The Steelers' defense has put up some encouraging numbers through three weeks of the regular season, ranking sixth in points per game (17.3) and 14th in yards per game (342.7). Keith Butler's young group currently ranks 19th against the pass, ninth against the run and seventh in sacks (9).
With Allen and Mike Mitchell playing well together on the back end, blown coverages have been less of an issue. The team has found its nickel back in Cockrell, and the combination of Gay and cornerback Antwon Blake has been solid on the outside. The font seven, meanwhile, is beginning to show its pedigree.
With franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sidelined with a knee injury for at least four to six weeks, the defense must continue to get off the field on third down and play fundamentally sound like it did in St. Louis last Sunday.