The Pittsburgh Steelers defense has absolutely had its ups and downs over the course of the season. They have had their areas of strength—the red-zone performance, for an example, which they showed on Thursday—but there have mostly been weaknesses that they have only been able to be successful when they are able to mask them.
One issue they have had through much of the season is getting off the field on third and fourth down. While the Steelers did have two fourth-down stops at the goal line against the Colts, overall, they as a defensive unit allowed 10 of 15 opportunities that reached third down continue to prolong a drive or to score.
Now, they started the game off well with a sack that wound up in a third and 20 that ended in a tackle on the play for a loss of five, but that would be the highlight of the night in terms of the third-down defense.
On the Colts’ second drive of the game, they converted two third downs before finally failing on the third attempt. They first converted on third and six with a pass to tight end Dwayne Allen. An 18-yard completion to T.Y. Hilton evaporated a third and eight. Finally, by the time that reached the Steelers’ 29, James Harrison was able to record a sack on third and one, and the ensuing field goal attempt went wide.
The drive that followed, you might recall, was prolonged by a fake punt. After throwing incomplete in third and six, the Colts executed a pass on a fake punt that went for 35 yards, down to the eight-yard line, and they scored two plays later.
Both of the Colts’ drives that ended in goal-line stands included at least one third-down conversion, though the first only faced a third and one. On the second drive, however, in addition to a third and three, Indianapolis was able to move the sticks on third and 15 with a 16-yard pass. Three plays later, they added an 18-yard gain on third and three.
They even converted on fourth and four from the Steelers’ 18-yard line on a 12-yard pass that gave them first and goal. So on that drive alone, they salvaged no less than four opportunities for Pittsburgh’s defense to get off the field by allowing conversions on third down three times, and once on fourth down.
Just for good measure, the Colts also added a pair of conversions on third and seven on their penultimate drive of the game, though the second of the two was immediately followed by the Steelers’ defense’s second interception of the game.
Clearly, this defensive unit has issues getting off the field when they have the opportunity to do so, considering that Scott Tolzien was able to do this to them. If they can’t start shortening defensive drives, their luck in the red zone is going to wear thin.