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Week 15 Patriots vs Steelers advanced stats: New England’s third down defense better step up its game

A look at the stats ahead of Sunday’s meeting between the Patriots and Steelers.

New England Patriots v Miami Dolphins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers are both fighting for a first-round playoff bye, were both set back by a loss in week 14, and will share the same field on Sunday. For the fourth time in the last three years, New England and Pittsburgh will square off with plenty on the line — and despite the Patriots’ recent run of success against the Steelers, the matchup projects to be a competitive affair

Let’s analyze it further by taking a look at some of the advanced stats heading into the game (courtesy of SB Nation’s Bill Connelly; for his methodology please click here).

Patriots offense vs Steelers defense

Normal down and distance in the open field

Patriots offense (l.) vs Steelers defense (r.)

Except when it comes to new downs being earned on first or second down, the Patriots offense will face its statistical equal in the open field on Sunday. While New England has a standard down success rate — gaining 50% of necessary yardage on first down, 70% on second down, and 100% on third and fourth down — of 48.8% between its own 10 and the opposing 30, the Steelers defense comes in at 43.8%. Naturally, it will be an interesting battle to watch in the open field.

Backed Up Situations Near the Goal Line

Patriots offense (l.) vs Steelers defense (r.)

New England’s offensive performance with its back against the wall does not stand out in either category, as the turnover percentage is still hurting from a tipped interception in week one. The Steelers defense, meanwhile, is solid when starting in favorable field position both when it comes to success rate and to generating turnovers.

Red Zone

Patriots offense (l.) vs Steelers defense (r.)

The Patriots’ goal-line offense took a step back in week 14 against the Miami Dolphins: both the team’s success rate inside the 10-yard line and at the goal line — defined as snaps taken inside the opponent’s 3 — decreased over the last weekend. What might help New England bounce back is getting tight end Rob Gronkowski involved more in the red area, especially against a Steelers defense that has a) had a hard time stopping him in the past, and b) has the same red area issues as the Patriots. While teams put a special emphasis on stopping him, the 29-year old showed against the Dolphins that he is still able to find success even when tightly covered.

Third Downs

Patriots offense (l.) vs Steelers defense (r.)

As is the case with the open field statistics, the Patriots offense and Steelers defense are also matched up rather evenly when it comes to third downs. Both units have strengths in third-and-long situations (seven or more yards to go) and struggle when it comes to third-and-mediums (from two to six yards to go). A big difference, however, can be seen on third-and-shorts (one yard to go): while New England is a middle-of-the-pack offense with a 68.8% conversion rate, Pittsburgh’s defense leads the league in this category.

Blitz Situations

Patriots offense (l.) vs Steelers defense (r.)

So-called blitz situations — 1st and 18 or more, 2nd and 14 or more, and 3rd and 3 or more — appear to favor the Patriots offense: Tom Brady and company fare comparatively well when it comes to success rate and blitz rate when forced to play from behind the sticks. The Steelers, being the polar opposite it seems, have the advantage on big plays.

Patriots defense vs Steelers offense

Normal down and distance in the open field

Patriots defense (l.) vs Steelers offense (r.)

New England’s open field defense continuously struggled to defend the big play against Miami — especially on the ground — and therefore slipped down the rankings in this category when compared to last week. Luckily for the unit, however, the Steelers offense does not fare much better when it comes to big plays and ranks just 24th in the NFL in this category. That being said, the Dolphins entered last Sunday’s game as the 29th ranked team and they still had plenty of success against the Patriots.

Backed Up Situations Near the Goal Line

Patriots defense (l.) vs Steelers offense (r.)

Both the Patriots defense and the Steelers offense find regular success in so-called backed-up situations inside the offense’s 10-yard line. The edge still goes the Pittsburgh, though, considering that the team has a higher success rate when it comes to moving the football in this part of the field.

Red Zone

Patriots defense (l.) vs Steelers offense (r.)

What was a relatively stout red zone defense a few weeks ago has since become a rather pedestrian unit: New England does not particularly stand out in any of the categories, with the success rate between the 20 and 30 especially worrisome considering how well the Steelers fare in this area. Other than that, however, the two units are again matched up pretty evenly. One number worth keeping an eye on is Pittsburgh’s turnover percentage inside the 10-yard line: the team’s offense is taking its chances close to the goal line and the Patriots need to be aware of that to potentially take advantage.

Third Downs

Patriots defense (l.) vs Steelers offense (r.)

While New England performed well on third down against Miami — the team gave up only one conversion on seven attempts — the Steelers are a different beast: Pittsburgh’s offense is ranked very well no matter the distance it faces. Meanwhile, the Patriots are near the bottom of the league in third-and-mediums and third-and-shorts. Safe to say that the team’s third down defense better step up its game to not allow the Steelers to continuously extend drives and control the tempo of the game.

Blitz Situations

Patriots defense (l.) vs Steelers offense (r.)

When forcing the opponent into obviously-looking passing situations, the Patriots defense has its fare share of issues. No matter if it comes to general success rate, big-play rate or sack rate, Brian Flores’ unit is pretty inconsistent — and will face a major challenge on Sunday: the Steelers are playing very well when forced into attacking from unfavorable situations.


Overall, there is not too much of a difference between the Patriots and the Steelers when it comes to advanced stats. New England therefore needs to be prepared for a close battle — one that could be decided by the performance of the Patriots’ third down defense: if the unit is able to build on the momentum it created last week and keep the Steelers from keeping drives alive on a regular basis, the team’s chances of leaving Pennsylvania victoriously should look fairly good.