When a 15-Yard Gain Isn’t a Positive Play and How it Relates to the Steelers

When is a 15-yard gain on offense not a positive play? When it’s third-and-20, and you’re then forced to punt on fourth down, giving possession back to the other team. On the surface, those 15 yards look nice, but it’s an empty number because it didn’t result in your desired goal: a first down (or a touchdown). You lost that possession, and the more possession’s you lose in a game, the more likely it is you’re going to lose the game.

Along the same line of thinking, when are 14 points in the fourth quarter not a positive result? When you’re losing by 20. Again, an empty number that looks good but still falls short of what you’re trying to achieve: a win.

The Steelers fourth quarter defense, as well as their pass defense, has been a question mark and topic for debate for the past few weeks because they give up a lot of yards and have surrendered a large portion of their points in the fourth quarter. Problem? Perhaps. But maybe not.

Mike Tanier of Football Outsiders had an interesting article at NBC earlier this week taking a look at the Steelers defense and what makes it so tough to play against leading up to Sunday’s game against New England. In his article Tanier points out the following: Teams can’t run on the Steelers, the Steelers don’t give up many big plays, and the Steelers cornerbacks are excellent tacklers.

These are things we already know. But he also provides us with plenty of interesting information — and some context — about opponents gaudy passing numbers, such as their 68 percent completion percentange and the 240 yards they average per game. But what do those numbers really mean?

Tanier explains what he calls, “the pain of containment:” “When the Steelers blitz they usually assign their cornerbacks and a safety (usually Ryan Clark, so Polamalu can blitz or do something crafty) to three-deep zone coverage. That means each defender is expected to drop back and keep the receiver in front of him. Pittsburgh fans are sometimes frustrated when Ike Taylor or William Gay allows an easy 10-yard completion, but those completions are residue of the team philosophy. If they give up a few 10-yarders, so be it. Just don’t allow a bomb, because the blitz will eventually get to the quarterback if he keeps dropping to throw short passes.

The containment policy has worked for the Steelers for years, and it has been business as usual this season. Opponents have thrown for 20 or more yards just 23 times this year. Even that total is inflated: it includes seven 20-yard gains in the fourth quarters of blowouts against the Titans, Browns, Bengals and Buccaneers. That leaves 16 long gains in meaningful situations — remarkable, considering that the Steelers have faced Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, the Terrell Owens-Chad Ochocinco experience, and the bomb-hurling Joe Flacco.”

He continued by pointing out the large number of completions the Steelers have allowed of five-yards or less: 68. Or, in other words, almost 35 percent of the passes completed against them: “If you guessed that teams complete a lot of low-protein screens against the Steelers, you are correct; the Steelers have allowed 68 completions of five yards or less. Gay, Taylor, and Bryant McFadden have combined to make 24 tackles on those short completions. A list of the receivers they have held to minimal gains on quick passes — Roddy White, Lance Moore, Marques Colston, Brandon Marshall, Terrell Owens and Derrick Mason, among others — shows how well the three-deep principle works for the Steelers. Go ahead and throw for five yards on a screen. We’ll get you next time.”

That’s pretty much what we talked about after the Week 1 game against the Falcons when Roddy White had a lot of catches, but didn’t really do that much damage against the Steelers. They gave him all the five-yard passes Atlanta wanted, made sure they tackled him right away, and then finally forced Matt Ryan into a mistake late in the game running the same play they had been running the entire game.

The Steelers catch a lot of heat for “easing up” late in games they’re winning big, but when looking back at some of the touchdown drives the Steelers have surrendered in blowouts (representing a large portion of the points they’ve given up) you see teams gaining a lot of yards and burning a lot of clock when the last thing they need to be doing is burning a lot of clock.

Look at the Tennessee game in Week 2, for example. The Titans scored one touchdown late in the contest when starting a drive, down by 16, on their own 15-yard line, with 4:59 remaining in the game. What you can’t do here as a defense is give up a quick score on two or three plays. When a team is losing by 16 points that late in the game the clock is just as much your opponent as the other team’s defense is. Instead of getting one big play, it took Tennessee 17 plays and 4:01 of clock time (their longest possession of the game, by a wide margin) to score that one touchdown. The touchdown got them closer, but at what cost? Clock time. Clock time that would have been an invaluable asset to get them the second touchdown they still needed.

The next game against Tampa Bay the Steelers again gave up another clock-burning, 10-play drive against Tampa Bay when the score was 38-6 in the fourth quarter. The Buccaneers gained a lot of yardage, scored a touchdown, but again ate up over four minutes when the game was woefully out of reach. Lather, rinse repeat for Colt McCoy and the Cleveland Browns in Week 6.

These touchdowns are a larger scale version of the 15-yard gain on third-and-20.

Monday’s game against Cincinnati turned out to be a bit too close for comfort, but one of those touchdowns was the result of a bad series of events, including three consecutive penalties (two of which the NFL admitted were incorrect calls) totalying 45 yards, allowing the Bengals to score seven points by gaining exactly one yard, following an interception. Still, the near comeback happened and I understand why people were in a panic watching it unfold (hell, so was I). That touchdown was just as much  the result of other factors (the turnover at midfield, putting the Bengals in “plus territory” … much like they were on their first touchdown of the game … being the biggest factor, along with the penalties) as the defense was. And, for the record, the Steelers defense wasn’t playing the type of prevent defense people loathe: they were bringing the house at Carson Palmer all night long.

The Steelers have played a daunting schedule so far against some excellent teams and a wide variety of individual talent (among the best in the NFL at just about every position: Drew Brees, Chris Johnson, Roddy White, Brandon Marshall, T. Ocho, just to name a few). Together, their opponents are 2-6 against the Steelers (.250) and 35-23 against everybody else (.603).

The point is, it’s dangerous to just look at the total number of yards gained and jump to conclusions. There’s a lot of reasons the Steelers give up passing yards, and they’re not all because the Steelers aren’t good at stopping it: Teams have to throw the football. They can’t run against the Steelers, and they’re usually trying to play catch up.

It’s basically the Kyle Orton effect at work.

Why does the Broncos quarterback have more passing yards than Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady this season? Because he’s better? Absolutely not. It’s because he has to. He has to because the Broncos running game is non-existent, and because Denver is so bad it’s usually losing in games — by a lot — and is forced to throw the football. It’s why guys like he and Tommy Maddox are able to throw for 3,000 yards.

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  • countertorque

    I think this is good analysis and I agree with the conclusions. However, I also remember games 1 & 2 of the 2002 season. Two teams said “you want to give us 5 yds/play on short passes? Great!” and proceeded to destroy us throwing 43 and 64(!) passes. There’s clearly a limit to this strategy. I don’t know if the 2010 defense is susceptible to the same kind of tactic or not. I do worry about it though, especially this week.

  • http://www.steelerslounge.com/ ryan


    Fair point and a legit concern. The only thing I’d point out is that Tim Lewis was the defensive coordinator. Lewis is to the DC job what DeWayne Washington is to the cornerback position.

    That said, Belichick and Brady have had success against the Steelers, no matter who was coordinating the defense.

  • John S.

    I understand the overall philosophy, but it’s hard to square that completely with the numbers. The Steelers have generally had the same pass defense philosophy for years, but this year, the numbers for pass defense are mediocre. Is it just because the rush defense numbers are off the charts, and maybe teams are just giving up on running quicker, putting more pressure on a pass defense already geared towards bending? I wonder what the Steelers defense % of three and outs is this year compared to 2008.

  • dennisonschili

    It’s a problem. Case closed.

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