Robert Saleh, NY Jets, Third Down, Defense
Robert Saleh, New York Jets, Getty Images

Fixing third down is how New York Jets will turn things around defensively

While I was researching the Pittsburgh Steelers ahead of their upcoming game against the New York Jets, one consistent problem showed up on tape: their inability to convert third downs.

In last week’s loss to Cleveland, Pittsburgh converted just 1-of-9 first downs. In the Week 1 win over Cincinnati, they went 4-of-15. The only team they’ve managed to convert against is the Patriots (8-of-15). All of this adds up to the Steelers being ranked 24th in the league in terms of third down conversion rate at 33.3%.

Most weeks that would be a statistic that excited the opposing fanbase, but the Jets have allowed a huge 51.2% of third downs to be converted, the second-worst mark in the NFL through three games. Something has to give.

You’ve heard of the immovable object versus the unstoppable force. Well, the immovable object here is the Steelers offense’s inability to move the ball, and the unstoppable force is the Jets’ inability to get out of their own way on defense.

Andrew Golden wrote a great piece highlighting some of the issues that caused the Jets to allow three big third-down completions by the Bengals, lamenting the players’ lack of autonomy to audible and make adjustments in the flow of the game.

If you watch the Jets through the first three weeks of the season, a lot of the issues on third down come over the middle of the field, between the linebackers and safeties. A 22-yard completion to Tyler Boyd highlighted in Andrew’s piece was a perfect example of that with Boyd working against C.J. Mosley between the numbers.

If you look at Joe Burrow’s passing stats for that game, he was 9-of-11 for 141 yards and 2 touchdowns when throwing between the numbers. That’s an 82% completion rate. In Week 1, Lamar Jackson completed 2-of-3 passes for 72 yards and 2 touchdowns when targeting the deep middle of the field, with those completions coming against safeties Lamarcus Joyner and Jordan Whitehead.

If you’re the Pittsburgh Steelers and you’re struggling on third down, and you have Chase Claypool and Pat Freiermuth working over the middle, and the Jets struggle defending the middle of the field, that’s your target.

The only issue is that Mitchell Trubisky often doesn’t like to throw to the middle of the field. Against the Browns last week, he only completed 2-of-4 passes over the middle of the field for 41 yards.

Trubisky Passing Direction v Browns
Trubisky Passing Direction v Browns

Trubisky was better against the Bengals underneath with a lot of throws just beyond the line, but again he struggled to push the ball down the middle of the field, this time completing 1-of-3 pass attempts 10+ yards between the hashes. The same goes against New England where he was 1-of-3 on pass attempts 10+ yards between the numbers.

The NFL is a game of tendencies and preferences, sometimes to a fault. We’ve seen stubbornness from the Jets’ defensive coaches in changing their defensive philosophy and playcalling, which has led them to have the 32nd-ranked defense in terms of DVOA. Trubisky’s tendency and preference is to avoid the middle of the field, but if he does that on Sunday he’s playing right into the Jets’ hands.

If you’re Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich you want the Steelers to throw to the sidelines. You’ve got D.J Reed out there allowing 33.3% of passes to be completed into his coverage, and you have Sauce Gardner allowing 58.3% of passes to be completed.

The graph below highlights why you probably want to target that middle of the field when facing the Jets.

Coverage Stats for Week 3

The Jets’ cornerback trio of Reed, Gardner, and Michael Carter II has registered a “perfectly covered play rate” of 83.9%, per Pro Football Focus, which is the best among all CB trios in the NFL.

If you’re Saleh and Ulbrich, what you don’t want Pittsburgh to do is target your linebackers and safeties.

The middle of the field is where this game will end up being won and lost. Third down is the money down, as Saleh likes to say. So far the Jets have shown an inability to stop teams on third down, especially over the middle of the field. The Steelers have shown an inability to convert third downs, especially over the middle of the field.

Something has to give in this matchup. The team that adapts its tendencies will likely come out with the victory.

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Staff writer for Jets X-Factor, NFL draft writer for SB Nation, Scribe & founder of the Daily Jets Newsletter, host of the UK Jets Podcast, husband and dad. Email: d.wyatt25[at]gmail.com
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Robert725
Robert725
2 months ago

Totally agree, stopping the run is job 1! Will know a lot about this team after the game. They have taken this VERY passionate fanbase for granted while lining their pockets! Last train to Clarksville!!!

Richard Hausig
Richard Hausig
2 months ago

So here we have a game where coaching and preparation can be the difference between winning and losing. What has surprised me about Salah’s defense is its inability to stop opponents early based on the game plan and worse, to make the necessary adjustments during the game. The offense has a lot of issues but you cant win games playing defense they way we do. To many long drives and the miscommunication, especially in key situations, is an indictment of the coaching. You can yell all day long that the players were out of position or they blew the coverage. All you are really saying is, the coaches failed to coach um up. They have told us over and over that theyve improved the talent, if thats true then what’s the problem?

Tomlin is going to run the ball right down our throat. If you can stop that then the Trubitsky will have to beat you throwing it. Seems pretty straight forward. Stop the run. Lets see if they can.