When a defensive game plan unfolds as desired, it usually goes something like this: Stop the run on early downs, set up a longer-yardage passing situation on third down, then dial up some pressure-based schemes to create havoc and end the opponent's drive.
The Patriots have been OK in the first two areas. It's the last one that keeps haunting them.
Third and long, which is supposed to be an advantageous situation for the defense, has been third and wrong this season.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, NFL defenses have been successful 74 percent of the time this season when it's third and 7 or longer, with success defined as not allowing a first down. Yet the Patriots' defense is at just 59.4 percent, a figure that accounts solely for passing plays but does factor in quarterback scrambles that are a result of good coverage or a strong rush.
The struggles continued this past Sunday against the Steelers, with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger almost making it look easy in picking up first downs on third and 7 (Nate Washington 15-yard catch), third and 12 (Washington for 16), and third and 9 (Hines Ward for 11).
Overall, opponents have converted at least one third and 7 or longer in each of the last eight games against New England.
Defensive coordinator Dean Pees keeps a scorecard to grade the defense on each down. He rates a victory on first down as holding the opponent to 3 yards or fewer, a win on second down as setting up a third-and-4 situation or longer, and a triumph on third down as stopping the offense short of a first down.
The Patriots are getting knocked out in the final category, ranking 29th out of 32 teams on third down (44.7 percent). The long-yardage passing situations have been killers.
Consider that on third and 10 or longer, defenses across the league have been successful 81.4 percent of the time. The Patriots, again accounting solely for passing plays, are at 67 percent.
The Patriots also lag on third and 15 or longer, a situation that hurt them in overtime against the Jets Nov. 13 when tight end Dustin Keller hauled in a 16-yard pass on third and 15. Defenses have been successful 91.3 percent of the time this season. New England, however, is 5 of 7 (71.4 percent).
That the Patriots have been poor on third and long reflects breakdowns in several areas, but above all else, it shows their lack of consistency in coverage and pass rushing, two cornerstones for any defense.
"Generally it's been something different every doggone time, and it's usually dealing with some kind of a technique problem," Pees said. "That's what bothered me about this last game, where we have everybody covered but a guy."
Cornerback Deltha O'Neal seemed to be the culprit on the Steelers' first long-range conversion, a third and 7 in the first quarter. The Patriots employed a dime defense (six defensive backs) and at the snap, they blitzed a fifth rusher.
That meant they dropped six players into coverage against four pass-catchers (three receivers, one running back). The pressure didn't get to Roethlisberger, who easily found his target, Washington, for a 15-yard gain along the right side. O'Neal was a full 3 yards behind him when the catch was made.
Later on that same drive, the Patriots created a third-and-12 situation with some strong early-down work. Again, they went to a dime defense against a three-receiver package, but this time they rushed just the standard four players.
Roethlisberger had plenty of time and delivered a strike for 16 yards to Washington, who found a seam among defensive backs Ellis Hobbs, Jonathan Wilhite, and Brandon Meriweather in what looked like zone coverage.
And finally, early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers faced a third and 9. With the Steelers spreading the field with four receivers, and New England once again in the dime, defensive lineman Richard Seymour burst through the left side and pressured Roethlisberger. Yet Roethlisberger delivered a strike to a sliding Ward, with cornerbacks Lewis Sanders and Wilhite the closest defenders.
In that case, the pressure was good, the coverage was a bit loose, and both Roethlisberger and Ward deserve credit for their execution.
In the end, Pees said third and long remains a thorn in the side of the team's defense.
"I don't think there is any one particular thing I can put my finger on," he said. "It seems that every time I write something down, it's something different or it's a different guy. It does become frustrating, especially if it's something that you know that you've emphasized during the week and you give it up. Sometimes that's the case, sometimes that's not the case.
"Sometimes the offensive player just makes a better play than the defensive player. You have to live with some of those, but certainly, we have to do better on third down than what we've been doing, across the board, all players and me included."