Last Sunday at Heinz Field, things were going the Steelers' way early in their game against the Eagles. Their defense authored two three-and-outs on Philadelphia's first two possessions, and their offense drove 62 yards on 14 plays the second time it had the ball to jump out to a 7-0 lead. On Philadelphia's third possession, the Eagles were staring at a third-and-9 and the Steelers were coming after Carson Wentz with blood in their eyes. That's when everything changed.
"We just didn't do a good job of controlling the circumstances, and really some of the circumstances were advantageous to us, meaning third-and-long (situations)," said Coach Mike Tomlin during his weekly news conference on Tuesday at the UPMC Sports Performance Complex. "The big play popped by Miles Sanders, first you have to give kudos to him, but they ran a draw play on third-and-9 into the teeth of a blitz, and we had unblocked people at the point of attack.
"We just have to make those plays, and sometimes the process of learning is not an alteration of what it is we do in preparation, or even the level of attention to detail in terms of our play. It's just an acknowledgment that in those weighty moments you have to make those tackles, you have to make the catch, you have to make the significant block. Sometimes through the course of this journey there are some negative experiences along those lines and they just provide reinforcements to things that we already know. There may not be any adjustment moving forward except an acknowledgment of how miserable it is. That play changed the trajectory of the day for them and for us, particularly as it pertained to those possession downs, and it made it tough sledding along the way."
Mike Hilton would end up leading the team in tackles with eight, but if he had finished with nine, maybe the game would've continued along the same easy path for the Steelers. But after Sanders completed that 74-yard run for a touchdown, the game was tied, 7-7, and the Steelers had to fight for their lives to get to 4-0 on the season.
They did prevail, 38-29, and are off to their best start since 1979, but there is no disputing that the Sanders run set a tone and further exposed a facet of the Steelers' performance that has been below the line from a statistical standpoint so far in 2020. After coming into the game against the Eagles tied-for-19th in the NFL in third-down efficiency, the Steelers defense is now ranked tied-for-28th after the Eagles converted 10-of-14 (71 percent). And starting with the 74-yard draw play by Sanders, the Eagles converted 10-of-12 (83.3 percent).
In the game's postmortem and then again on Tuesday, Tomlin was asked about the issues with the Steelers third-down defense.
"Some of the issues aren't issues," said Tomlin. "Some of the issues are that No. 13 (Travis Fulgham) was making some combat catches and you have to acknowledge that. A couple of those conversions were thrown into tight coverages and were great throws. That one down the middle of the field, we were in two-deep, man-under, and Mike Hilton was in close proximity to (Fulgham), and he made a combat catch down the middle of the field running blind. You have to respect that. He made a circus, jump-catch in front of our bench with Steve Nelson draped all over him and challenging the catch from start to finish.
"It's not always something that you have to fix," added Tomlin, "and that's what I meant when I said earlier that sometimes it's just an acknowledgment that they work, that they have a plan, that they have quality players who are capable of making plays, and sometimes they're going to make a play and you have to roll up your sleeves and fight on. It's good to see our group gain that understanding. Everything doesn't require a meeting or a dry-erase board or an adjustment. Sometimes it's just, get back out there and fight. And there was some of that. If I didn't acknowledge that, I'd be doing the Philadelphia Eagles a disservice."
What helped the Steelers find a path to a fourth straight win was their own efficiency on third downs, because against an Eagles defense that came into the game ranked sixth in the NFL in third-down efficiency, Ben Roethlisberger converted 11-of-15 (73 percent), with two of his three touchdown passes coming on third downs.
"I think if you're a professional and have a desire to continually be at your best, you'll comb through things in an effort to get better for your next time out. So that's what we're doing. I'm just acknowledging that some of the plays don't require an adjustment, either in personnel or technique, or schematics. Sometimes you just have guys on the other side who are working hard and performing at a good level as well. And some of that happened last Sunday. You have to tip your cap to Carson Wentz, you have to tip your cap to Travis Fulgham, you just have to tip your cap to the Philadelphia Eagles. We're all competitors in this thing, and I saw that their coaching staff said similar things about Ben's ability to check into the play that kind of closed the game out when he threw the ball down the middle of the field to Claypool. It's a chess match. We're all working. We're all capable, and plays are being made. That's what makes the National Football League so competitive and so interesting and the job so challenging week to week."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE:
"We had a couple of guys who sustained injuries in-game, and their availability for this week will be determined by the quality of their practice and their practice availability specifically. Those guys are David DeCastro with an abdominal strain, Maurkice Pouncey has a foot injury of some kind that is probably going to limit his practice availability at the beginning of the week, but I don't know that it's going to jeopardize his availability for the game. The same with Diontae Johnson, who took a direct blow to the back. There were a couple of guys who missed our last game who have a chance to work themselves back into the rotation, those being Derek Watt (hamstring) and Marcus Allen (foot). Both of those guys have been in the building at the early portions of this week and have been running and rehabbing, which leads us to believe they're going to be available to practice, and we'll let the quality of their practice be our guide as to whether we include them in the development of a plan."