Despite winning Sunday's thriller against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New England Patriots have a lot of things to work on heading into the regular season's home stretch. One of the team's goals should be easy to identify: Improving on third down on both offense and defense. After all, the team yet again had some big-time struggles in this area during yesterday's game.
One week after failing to convert in even one of the eleven third down situations it found itself in, the Patriots offense improved only slightly versus the Steelers: Of the nine third down attempts the team faced, three were turned into a new set of downs. Progress, yes, but still a far cry when compared to the almost 45% success rate Tom Brady and company had before entering last week's game in Miami.
To make third down matters worse, the defense also struggled: When it came to getting off the field, Matt Patricia's unit had a bad performance. Of the 16 third downs New England found itself in, the Steelers were able to convert 10 – with the low-point arguably being a scoring drive in the second quarter that saw four third down conversions by Pittsburgh's offense.
The lopsided performances on third down also reflected themselves in the time of possession. The Steelers held the football for more than 35 minutes and as a result were able to limit Tom Brady's time on the field: The Patriots offense played only 56 snaps, its second-lowest output of the year behind only last week's game against the Miami Dolphins.
On the year and when compared to the rest of the NFL, New England is now tied for ninth in terms of their offensive third down performance: On average, the Patriots convert 41.5% of their attempts. The defense, on the other hand, slipped to 23rd in the rankings due to yesterday's contest and is now giving up fresh sets of downs on 41.3% of its third down snaps.
New England needs to find a way to improve both numbers – especially the latter – if it wants to prohibit teams from following the Steelers' and Dolphins' blueprint to slowing down the Patriots' high-powered attack: Long, time-consuming drives on offense combined with opportunistic third-down play on defense.