The 2011 NFL season was another proud year for the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense. Dick Lebeau's unit finished first in points allowed, yardage given up, and despite much concern about the secondary last offseason, the defense even finished the year number one against the pass. Those are all very important categories, and they all added up to make the Steelers the number one ranked defense in the league.
There wasn't much to complain about if you were a Steelers fan. However, despite the number one ranking, there was something missing from last year's unit, and it just didn't seem like the same old dominant Steelers defense. To quote Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley: "We finished number one, but it didn't seem like some of the number ones from recent years." The something that was missing was turnovers. The Steelers finished dead-last in takeaways in 2011--including 24th in interceptions and 30th in fumbles recovered. The Steelers defense only had 15 takeaways the entire season and one defensive touchdown. The sacks were also down, as the defense finished with 13-less than it had the previous year. This could mostly be attributed to injuries to both Woodley and James Harrison, who each missed significant portions of 2011 with injuries, but no matter the root cause, there was no question that the 2011 Steelers defense was severely lacking in what Mike Tomlin likes to refer to as "Splash plays."
It is pretty evident that Tomlin and the rest of the Steelers coaching staff are putting more emphasis on turnovers in 2012. In this clip from Steelers.com, Lebeau speaks about his unit from a year ago, and even though he was happy with the number one ranking, the turnover situation obviously isn't sitting well with him, and it's an area that he'd like to see improve in 2012.
I think that's good news for Steelers fans, because while most stats may tell you a lot, the most important one, at least in my opinion, is turnovers. And no matter what else is happening in a football game, turnovers can cut through everything else like a hot-knife through butter.
Maybe the increased emphasis during training camp is starting to manifest itself in games. Through three preseason games, the Steelers have seven turnovers--including six interceptions. You saw how quickly Saturday night's game changed once the Bills started turning the football over.
The Steelers weren't looking so hot on offense, the defense wasn't looking much better, and Pittsburgh quickly fell behind, 7-0, early in the first quarter. However, midway through the second quarter, Lawrence Timmons caused a fumble that Ziggy Hood recovered at Buffalo's 18 yard line. The Steelers offense took advantage of the opportunity and scored on an Isaac Redman two-yard touchdown run to tie the game at seven. Early in the second half, with Pittsburgh ahead, 14-7, Troy Polamalu intercepted Vince Young at the Bills' 39 yard line, and on the very next play, Byron Leftwich hit Antonio Brown for a touchdown pass to put Pittsburgh ahead by 14 points.
What once was a tight game that Buffalo was dominating early on, quickly turned into a laugher in Pittsburgh's favor thanks to turnovers.
While ranking high in over-all defense is obviously very important, I think the recent trends tell us that teams with opportunistic defenses are the ones that compete for and win championships.
Take last season's Super Bowl participants, for example. The World Champion New York Giants had a defense that ranked 27th in yards allowed, 29th against the pass, 25th in points allowed and 19th against the run. However, the unit had 31 takeways for the season and the Giants team finished +7 in the turnover department.
The AFC Champion Patriots were even better in turnovers. Despite finishing next-to-last in overall defense and giving up 115 more points than the Steelers, New England's defense created 34 turnovers and finished 3rd in that category. As a whole, the Patriots finished +17 in the giveaway/takeaway category.
Speaking of +17, that's what the Steelers were in 2010 when the defense created 35 turnovers, and the team advanced to Super Bowl XLV.
Of course, the offense has to be held accountable, too. Last season, Bruce Arians' unit gave the football away 28 times--compared to 18 in 2010--and the team finished at -13 and was one and done in the playoffs.
The last four Super Bowl winning teams were a combined +32 in the turnover department, and you have to go back to the 2007 New York Giants to find any Super Bowl participant that finished in the red in that category.
It is only the preseason, and it's hard to put too much stock in what the Steelers have done in the turnover department so far, but history shows us that finishing on the plus side of the turnover equation could be the most important factor in determining whether or not your favorite football team is playing in the first week of February.