Following their shootout win over the Eagles in week 5, the Steelers find themselves 4-0.
Much of the credit for the 4-0 start should go to the offense. That would have been a crazy thought entering the season, but it's a reality we face now. The defense as a whole hasn't been as bad as it's made out to be, though. They're still ranked in the league's top ten in most categories and still top five in several areas. One area the defense deserves all the criticism they're getting is on third downs.
Opposing defenses have converted 50% of their third down opportunities against the Steelers this season. Only four teams are allowing a higher percentage of third downs to be converted. This number sure wasn't improved upon against the Eagles, who converted 10 of their 14 third down opportunities. The most frustrating part of it was the way Philadelphia was converting on their third down opportunities.
Half of the Eagles' third down conversions came on 3rd and 8 or longer. This includes a 3rd and 10, 3rd and 12, and 3rd and 17.
Furthermore, the Eagles scored on four different drives in the game. On three of those four scoring drives, they converted in a third and long situation prior to scoring. So not only are the Steelers struggling to get off the field on third down, but the struggles are directly leading to points for their opponents. The defense has been doing a great job of putting the other team into third and long situations. Now, they just need to get off the field to truly become a dominant defense.
Insert the Cleveland Browns. They haven't been world-beaters on third downs this year, but their conversion rate of 45.2% is in the top half of the league. Regardless of their third down statistics, the potential is there for them to give the Steelers problems. Cleveland will have the same blueprint that the Eagles were successful with on third downs against the Steelers.
Unlike last season, the Browns offensive line has been doing a tremendous job this year. A bad offensive line has little chance against the Steelers on third down due to the elite Pittsburgh pass rush. But if the offensive line can give Baker Mayfield the same protection that the Eagles gave Carson Wentz on many third and long situations, that will give the Steelers problems. We saw how Travis Fulgham was able to give them problems on third down. Surely, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry, and Austin Hooper are capable of giving similar kinds of headaches.
Using blitzes on third down will be a double-edged sword against Cleveland and their elite offensive weapons. Sure, putting pressure on Baker Mayfield is a good recipe to force some turnovers. But if the pressure doesn't get home, the Steelers secondary hasn't been playing well enough to give anyone confidence in them shutting down the Browns receiving weapons with only four or five guys in coverage. At the same time, it's no sure thing that dropping guys in coverage on third down will prove successful, either. Again, if Travis Fulgham was able to find the soft spot in the zone, Beckham and Landry will have no problems.
The Steelers defense will have their hands full in this matchup; there's no way around it. And if they allow a third down conversion rate of over 70% again, they will lose. Cleveland is too good of a team to hand them extra chances and extended drives. It's not just about getting to third and long situations. It's about getting off the field in those situations. If the Steelers can get stops on third down, they'll win the game. If they can't, they'll lose.