Four Downs: Steelers’ defensive line statistically stout

November 27, 2018

1.Above the (d) line

With Cameron Heyward coming off his breakout season and Stephon Tuitt coming off a breakout pair of games, it’s time to give the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defensive line credit as one of the best in the AFC.

Heyward was a first-team All Pro in 2017, but Tuitt had an off year following a torn biceps injury suffered on the first series of the season. This season, the duo -- supplemented by Tyson Alualu and Javon Hargrave -- is healthy and has gradually rounded into form as a group.

The Steelers rank sixth in the NFL against the run (94.4 yards per game), only five teams have allowed fewer rushing touchdowns (four) and only seven have a better opponents yards-per-attempt (4.1). Situationally, the Steelers have not allowed a third-and-1 run against them this season for a first down -- and their yards yielded per first-down rush (3.59) has set up the defense for success by creating second-and-longs. And as previously chronicled, the Steelers are shutting down opposing running backs (66.9 yards per game, no carries of more than 20 yards). Run defense is a team effort, but the linemen are arguably the most responsible.

Over the past two games, Tuitt has two sacks, 12 tackles, three for loss, three quarterback hits and four hurries/pressures.

Footballoutsiders.com calculates statistics that are kind to the Steelers defensive line. It ranks the Steelers as the best in the NFL against “power runs” (short yardage) and No. 3 in “stuffed percentage” (runs that gain zero or negative yards, 27.3 percent). It also calculates the Steelers as fifth best in the NFL in adjusted sack rate.

2. Up, down of Brown

Antonio Brown this season continues to confound in regards to evaluating where the perennial All-Pro fits into the NFL receiver hierarchy at age 30.

Brown is 21st in receiving yards­­ but leads the NFL with eight receiving touchdowns. He’s tied for 15th in catches -- but has no fumbles and one drop among 47 catchable passes (per PFF), giving him one some of the best “hands” metrics in the league.

And a pair of Brown’s statistics are trending in ways that seem counterintuitive. While conventional wisdom would suggest players become more prone to being “possession receivers” in lieu of “big-play threats” as they age, Brown is heading the opposite direction. His catch percentage (receptions divided by targets) has decreased each of the past three seasons while his average yards after a catch (YAC) has increased.

Brown is catching 57.5 percent of passes thrown his way this season (per Next Gen Stats) after catching 61.96 percent in 2017 and 68.83 percent in 2016. Brown’s average YAC has grown from 3.9 to 4.7 to 5.8 from 2016-18. This season, Brown is tied for the fourth-best average YAC among wide receivers when he ranked 31st in the category two seasons ago.

3. Short-yardage gains

Some will point to the re-introduction of the QB sneak. Others will say James Conner is better than Le’Veon Bell. Maybe there’s a much lower-profile reason, or perhaps it’s just coincidence and/or sample-size bias. Whatever the cause, the Steelers have improved significantly when they have absolutely needed to get 1 yard.

Last season, the Steelers were a combined 9-for-17 on getting a first down (53 percent) on third-and-1 or fourth-and-1. Less than halfway through this season, they already have nine such conversions -- and among only 11 such situations (82 percent).

4. Chuks looks good

No NFL team has run more plays this season with six offensive linemen than the Steelers, according to PFF. The 2018 extra tackle/tight end spot has been used 52 times through seven games, and it has been manned by rookie Chuks Okorafor. In the recent past, the Steelers have used the look as much for creating a “big” run-first look as it has to ease younger players into the league by getting them experience. Chris Hubbard, B.J. Finney and Jerald Hawkins were some of Okorafor’s predecessors who got their proverbial NFL feet wet in the job and (with the exception of Hawkins, who’s injured) moved on to bigger roles.

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