“Ultimately, it’s going to have to come down to us winning on third down as well,” Patriots LB Dont’a Hightower said leading up to the game against the Steelers. “We’re going to have to win on third down. We’re going to have to win in the red area. Those are key components to winning a game. Those are the things we’re going to have to tighten up on.”
Hightower and the Patriots defense focused their attention all week on improving their third down defense and their red zone stops and, to put it simply, it appears the hard work paid off.
The Steelers converted just 31.3% of their third down attempts, the lowest rate allowed by the Patriots all season. The previous best was 38.5% against the Browns. Every other team has converted a minimum of 40.0%; the Patriots allowed 50.0% conversion rates in week 1 and 2.
Multiple Patriots players acknowledged their work on 3rd down after the game, with ED Jabaal Sheard saying it was “something that we looked to improve on,” and CB Malcolm Butler calling it “the biggest key in the game.”
The Patriots defense also stepped up inside the red zone, with CB Malcolm Butler registering an interception. It’s also important to note that the Patriots did a great job of stalling the Steelers in scoring territory by forcing field goal attempts instead of allowing touchdowns.
While it would have been ideal to prevent the Steelers from ever reaching scoring position, the Patriots strategy seems to be working. The Patriots defense is tied for the 4th fewest points allowed on drives that reach the 30 yard line; the unit has a habit of bending in the open field, but they haven’t been breaking.
The Patriots will need too keep up the high level of play on third down defense and they’ll have to reduce the amount of drives allowed to reach scoring territory, but it’s clear the squad is a work in progress- the 3rd down conversion rate has been dropping since the first two weeks of the year.
The defense will continue to improve as it has every year under head coach Bill Belichick.