Already in a weakened state, Pittsburgh’s opponents have carved their defense on first and second downs all season long.
Due to the unit’s inability to stop the run and the simple fact that opposing quarterbacks are more than willing to take four-to-six yards against the soft-zone which Dick LeBeau employs via the passing game, offenses around the league are more than willing to “take what the Steelers’ defense” simply gives them to set themselves up in favorable situations on second and third downs.
The constant losses on first and second downs have not been lost on Cameron Heyward, and Pittsburgh’s defensive end mentioned the following in an article by Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
I think I was reading something where we’re second-to-last [in the NFL] in having third-and-6 or longer. We have to force them into some tougher situations where they don’t have as many opportunities and plays that put us in tough situations.
I have mentioned at length that the inability of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense to “win” on first and second downs has been a large cause of why this team has not created consistent pocket collapse or forced turnovers, and I for one am glad that Heyward mentioned it.
Offenses around the league know that Pittsburgh’s defense has problems stopping the run, and they know that they can simply “steal” passing yards against LeBeau’s soft-zone. With patience and dedication to a simple game-plan, the Steelers’ opponents have mercilessly exploited them this year.
LeBeau’s exotic blitz packages and reliance on soft-zone coverage mean nothing when it is “2nd or 3rd and 3-5,” nor do opposing quarterbacks need to drop back and wait for receivers to come open down the field when the sticks are only short distances away as well.
Offenses must gamble more when they are in “2nd or 3rd and 7+” situations, and they will gladly exploit any opportunity to “dink-and-dunk” (as well as run) their way down the field to stay out of them. In turn, defenses like Pittsburgh’s are less likely to take the ball away or record sacks when offenses do not need to force throws or stay in the pocket longer to keep drives alive.
Before they do anything else, Pittsburgh’s run defense must improve over the coming weeks if they want to force their opponents into unfavorable situations. The Steelers currently rank 25th in rushing yards per game allowed, and it will take strong efforts from Steve McLendon, the defensive end rotation and the linebackers to limit teams from gashing them in the trenches.
In addition to shoring up the running game, it might help Pittsburgh’s defense to play more press-coverage or at least try to limit the amounts of “dinking-and-dunking” opposing quarterbacks do in the passing game. Giving up six yards on first and second downs helps nobody, and allows offenses to set up their running games in the process. It’s only an added kick in the nuts when the cornerbacks cannot wrap the receivers up after they haul in the passes (see: Cortez Allen against Minnesota).
If Pittsburgh’s defense continues to lose on first and second downs though, then this team will remain incompetent when it comes to forcing turnovers and creating pocket collapse. Also, a top five draft pick will also be on the horizon as well.
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