Point, Counterpoint: What to Make of the Steelers' Early Season Struggles in the Turnover Department Both Offensively and Defensively? (Part 2)

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 25: Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers returns a fumble 16 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 25, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Steelers won 23-20. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Be sure to read Part 1 of this two-part post. The first offering was from Anthony Defeo and his concerns about the huge disparity in giveaways and takeaways for the Pittsburgh Steelers through the first three weeks of the 2011 NFL season. What follows is my retort -- basically why it's too early to hit the panic button, and why Pittsburgh's -9 turnover differential means nothing moving forward. -Michael B. - 

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Don't get me wrong, the Steelers will have a hard time repeating the success they enjoyed in 2008 and 2010 if they can't force more turnovers on defense. And it goes without saying that the offense has to eliminate some of the costly mistakes if they hope to not negate otherwise respectable performances offensively. As Anthony mentioned, creating turnovers is really the only way to slow down offenses over the course of a 60 minute game in today's NFL. That's certainly true with the Steelers. If Ben Roethlisberger is protecting the football, it's lights out for the opposition. So long as Troy Polamalu and James Harrison are healthy at least, and making life difficult for opposing offenses.

By the same token, the Steelers will also find themselves on the losing end of another game or two (or three or four) that they shouldn't lose if the offense continues to shoot itself in the foot with turnovers. Sunday night's win over the Colts was a perfect example of how you can counterfeit an otherwise solid performance offensively with just a few mistakes. 

I don't have tons to say about this subject just yet -- we'll have to see if they can continue winning without coming out on the long end of the stick turnover-wise -- other than to suggest you remember a very important term in the world of statistics: outliers. Definition please?

out.li.er (noun): a statistical observation that is markedly different in value from the others of the sample.

I would certainly classify Week 1 as an outlier. The Steelers turned the ball over 7 times against Baltimore. Dick LeBeau's defense did not force a single turnover that forgetful afternoon in Baltimore, meaning the Steelers started the year in a huge hole at -7 in turnover differential. 

So, do the Steelers need to roar back into the black in order to have a successful regular season? Not necessarily. What they do need to do though is tie or win the turnover battle by at least one in as many games as possible moving forward. In other words, forget about the season total and take a tabula rasa approach for the remaining 13 weeks. The Steelers could be +10 in turnovers right, or they could be at their ugly number of -9. Doesn't matter. They're 2-1. The only thing that matters now is what happens next, and there are no bonus points or added wins for getting back into the black for the season in this next 13 games. 

Both of the Steelers two wins in the early part of the 2011 season have come in games where they either tied or lost that battle. Neither the Steelers nor the Seahawks turned it over in Pittsburgh's 24-0 shutout win over Seattle in Week 2; and more recently, the Steelers notched a Week 3 road win over Indianapolis despite finishing -2 in that category.  

Quite frankly, that's a great sign of what this team can still accomplish if it eliminates a few mistakes and creates a bit more havoc with the pass rush from guys not named Troy Polamalu or James Harrison in the remaining 13 games on the schedule. Do you really think Troy Polamalu is going to miss interception opportunities like the one he had against the Seahawks in Week 2? Will James Harrison not force more fumbles as the season goes along? Will quarterbacks like Colt McCoy, Andy Dalton, Blaine Gabbert, Alex Smith and Matt Cassel make their fair share of mistakes over the course of a long season? 

NFL teams win approximately 80 percent of the games in which they finish at least +1 in turnover differential. Just one. That's all it takes to give yourself a huge edge in this hyper-competitive league. 

Check this -- in 2010, when, as Anthony noted, the Steelers finished with a + turnover differential, only seven times did they win the turnover battle. In eight of their other regular season games, the Steelers had as many takeaways as they did takeaways.

(That, by the way, is why I mentioned previously that they really just need to not lose the turnover battle on too many more occasions. For a team this experienced and explosive when clicking, it's not about winning the turnover battle; it's just about staying out of harm's away and not crippling your chances to win with multiple giveaways.)

Only once did Pittsburgh finish in the red in 2010, yet they still lost four games. In the eight games that they neither won nor lost the turnover battle, the Steelers went 6-2, with the losses coming at New Orleans and against the Jets. What's that mean? Quite simply, it means that this team is good enough to win on a regular basis when they don't win that critical statistical category each week. There's no reason to think that this year's team isn't equally capable of winning more than half the games in which they don't win the turnover battle. If they have eight such games in their next 13, they may not go 6-2 again, but it's certainly not unrealistic or excessively optimistic to think that they won't match that mark, or at worst go 5-3. Provided they win the turnover battle three or four times as well, and win all such games, they're right there at 10 or 11 wins. And quite frankly, with some of the pathetic teams that await in the second half of the season, it's really not too crazy to think they might be able to get away with another one or two games like Week 3 in which they finish in the red. 

The Steelers have already had two games in which they finished in the negative, and have yet to have a game through three weeks where they were in the positive. Yet here they are at 2-1. So, to me, it's not a matter of accumulating lots of turnovers this next 14 weeks so that they can get the season total above 0, rather eliminating a few inopportune mistakes on offense while having a more breaks go their way defensively. 

Bottom line to me is that we've seen what I believe will turn out to be some of the most sloppy play of the season already on offense. It's been frustrating; it's been ugly; it nearly cost us a game we had no business not winning by double-digit points in Week 3; and it's certainly not sustainable.  But take that outlier away and we're -2 for the year, just below the middle of the pack, and nothing that should be too alarming to fans. 

Go Steelers!

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