Before Pittsburgh’s last win versus the New York Jets, defensive end Cameron Heyward highlighted how much Pittsburgh’s defense had struggled to “win” on first and second downs during their 0-4 start. Losing on those downs is a death sentence for any defensive unit, and it was no surprise that the Steelers had lost their first four games and failed to force a single turnover in any of them either.
When offenses are not forced into “long (7+ yards)” situations on those downs, they are not likely to gamble or be aggressive with their play-calling. This in turn led teams like Tennessee, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Minnesota to mercilessly carve Dick LeBeau’s defense, and it was a main reason why the Steelers struggled so mightily at the beginning of the 2013 campaign.
To their credit, Pittsburgh’s defense did a much better job against the Jets last weekend when it came to not only forcing turnovers, but winning the battle on third downs. In fact, Heyward said the following about the defense’s performance in a recent article by Teresa Varley of Steelers.com:
The coaches did a great job with the game plan, … We were able to exploit some things. I thought we came with a lot of pressure. The main thing for the defense was we won on first and second down to put them in some tough third downs. Once we got them in some tougher situations we were able to pin our ears back and have a chance to hit them.
Patient offenses around the league have been able to exploit LeBeau’s defensive scheme over the years with a quick passing game to set up the run, and have “dinked and dunked” their way to success. Any defense is rendered largely hapless when facing second and third and manageable situations, and losing on first and second downs is a recipe for disaster.
The Steelers’ defense was stout enough to force the Jets’ offense into unfavorable situations last Sunday, and that trend must continue if they want to climb out of the AFC North cellar. Improving against the run will be key, as well as playing more press-man coverage to limit opposing signal-callers from “taking what Pittsburgh’s defense gives them” through the air for chunks of yardage on first and second downs.
While they certainly are not a “dominating” unit, we should see signs of improvement from Pittsburgh’s defense over the coming weeks if they can continue to win on first and second downs.
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