Third down may be regarded as a critical possession down in the NFL, but Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler will be every bit as concerned about what happens on the way to third down for the Browns on Sunday in Cleveland.
"They don't want to put their quarterback in a situation where we know they gotta throw the ball and we're gonna get after 'em," Butler maintained today. "They don't like that one bit because that's not what they're best suited for. They're best suited for, 'Hey, it's gonna be third-and-4 or third-and-3 or something like that so we don't have to protect for a long time.'
"They're gonna do the things they feel like they can do to get third-and-4, third-and-5, third-and-6. They'd much rather do that because then they get in a situation where they can run or pass. They have run the ball several times on third-and-6, third-and-5 and stuff like that. Normally, people don't do that but they do. They do so we gotta be aware of that."
It's less than a revelation NFL offenses prefer third-and-short to third-and-long.
"We're pretty good on third-and-short," Steelers offensive coordinator Matt Canada observed. "We're not very good on third-and-long.
"That's certainly not any kind of rocket scientist statement."
But the Browns' relentless running game and their relative struggles passing the ball put even more of an onus on at least having the option to run on third down.
Cleveland will host the Steelers ranked No. 1 in the NFL in rushing at 170.4 yards per game (the Browns are No.9 in total offense and No. 27 in passing offense).
The Browns also lead the NFL in average yards per carry (5.36), rushing first downs (70) and rushing touchdowns (13, tied).
Cleveland's commitment to and consistency with the run is such that third-string running back D'Ernest Johnson stepped in on Oct. 21 against Denver with Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt unavailable and rumbled for 146 yards and a touchdown on the ground and averaged 6.6 yards per carry in a 17-14 victory over the Broncos.
"They're whole offense is geared around them running the ball," Butler continued. "You always look at offense, try to take away what they do best, and that's what they do best, there's no doubt about that. They do a lot of that, they do play-action pass, they do 'boots' (bootlegs). They do a lot of short passing in terms of trying not to get behind on the sticks. They do a real good job of that.
"They feed off their running game so we gotta stop their running game. We gotta do that first and foremost."
The Steelers prepare for the Week 8 matchup against the Cleveland Browns
Other subjects addressed by Butler today included:
—The progress of young defensive linemen Isaiah Buggs, Henry Mondeaux and Isaiahh Loudermilk filling in for Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt: "We got some young guys that gotta come along and step up. We're working with them and will continue to work with them. (Veteran defensive tackle) Cam (Heyward) has done a real good job for us in those terms.
"Our young guys have gotta come along. They have to a certain degree but we need them to be a little bit better than they have been."
—Inside linebacker Devin Bush's performance through five games: "I think all of us would say, including him, that we'd all like to be better. Shoot, what are we in defense in the league, 13th or something like that? I don't like that but it's a continuing journey for all of us.
"When you've been hurt and you're coming back from an injury sometimes it's a little bit harder than you think. It just doesn't automatically happen in the National Football League. The competition is too intense just to come out and miss a long time and all of a sudden start playing and expect to be the same way that you were before you got hurt, it's not gonna be that way. You gotta keep working at it and he is. I think he'll get better, he'll play better."
—Whether the tackling issues evident against Seattle have been corrected: "It's not live until Sunday. We can pat ourselves on the back and say, 'OK, we got that covered.' No, we don't know until we start playing. We gotta get off blocks and we gotta put bodies on the ball carrier, we gotta do that."