UPDATE: kk99 put together a fantastic chart comparing last season to this one, and you can find that at the end of the post. The additional suggested analysis as per several of the comments turned into a separate post, which you can find above.
I ran across the following quote in an article by John Dudley of the Erie Times-News:
Two statistics in particular illustrate why the Steelers have failed to dominate. Their margin of victory is only 2.8 points per game. In each of their past three Super Bowl seasons, they won by an average of at least 7.8 points per game.
And their defense, although top-ranked, hasn't made big plays. Through six weeks the Steelers rank dead last in the league in takeaway-giveaway ratio at minus-10. The offense has turned the ball over 12 times and the defense has forced only two turnovers, one interception and one fumble. They have ranked lower than 24th in turnover ratio only once in franchise history, when they finished 27th in 2006.
I went looking for last year's figures, as I seemed to recall that the Steelers had something like an average of two takeaways per game last season. And indeed the Steelers took the ball away 35 times last season, with 21 interceptions and 14 forced fumbles. So I decided to find out how many points those turnovers had resulted in, and compare it to how many points they lost on offensive turnovers (18 total last year.) My hypothesis is that the "missing" 5 points per game so far this year can be attributed to the lack of points achieved via turnovers.
As this comparison runs pretty long, I'm going to publish it in chunks. This chunk will be the first four games of both 2010 and 2011, to be followed by 3-game chunks throughout the rest of the season. There will be a final reckoning after the Steelers are finished for the year. At that point maybe we'll have some idea what the 2011 Steelers are like.
Here are Games 1-4:
Game 1 (2010) vs. the Falcons was a wash. Troy intercepted a pass, as did Mike Peterson. There are no FFs on the stat sheet, but actually Timmons forced a fumble that Harrison ran in for a TD. The only problem was that a Chris Hoke Illegal Block in the Back penalty nullified it.
I am going to mention these, just because as I recall we don't have any of these this season so far either. So it isn't just that turnovers aren't showing up on the stat sheet—they just aren't happening, other than the constant flow of "Polamalu almost intercepted that ball" comments from the broadcast team.
But back to 2010—Peterson's interception of a short Dennis Dixon pass resulted in a 2:40 drive late in the 2nd quarter that ended with a FG for Atlanta.
Troy gave the offense the ball at the Atlanta 30 with 1:40 left to play. Three snaps, three runs, nine yards later they bring Jeff Reed out with 43 seconds left in the game for what should have been the game-winning field goal. Except that he missed. So the sole interception in this game resulted in no points. However, it very likely prevented Atlanta from scoring, and thus forced overtime, which ended with a Rashard Mendenhall 50 yard run into the end zone.
Game 1 (2011) At Baltimore was a far different story. I'm quite sure that the Steelers would have been very happy with last season's 0 turnover differential. Instead the box score tells a far sorrier tale.
At 3:15 in the 1st quarter the score was still PIT 0 BAL 7, scarcely an insurmountable difference. But after driving 24 yards from the PIT 20 Ben fumbled during one of the many opportunities he had to chat with Terrell Suggs. Haloti Ngata grabbed the ball to give it to Flacco at the PIT 37. Four plays later Ray Rice ran it in to make the score 0-14.
Flacco put 7 more points on the board shortly before half-time, and the Steelers ran onto the field for the 3rd quarter down 21 points, rather like they had at the AFC North Divisional Playoff game. Things only got worse—much worse—from here. The first play of the 3rd quarter was a Ngata strip sack, and he recovered the fumble at the PIT 18. One play later Flacco threw for another TD. A bizarre FG attempt in which the snapper ran the ball into the end zone made the FF worth 8 points instead of 7.
The very next play Ben was intercepted by Ray Lewis, who ran it to the PIT 17. This time the defense managed to stymie a 4th-and-1 conversion attempt, and Ben got the ball at the PIT 9. Astonishingly, they managed to drive all the way to the BAL 18, at which time Ben threw the ball to Ed Reed. Reed took it another 9 yards, and Flacco got it on the BAL 10. The defense, who seemed to be warming up just a bit, held them to a 29-yard FG.
The Steelers got the ball early in the 4th quarter, and Ben once again drove from the PIT 20 to the BAL 20, and threw the ball to Ed Reed again. Maybe the fact that the Ravens were wearing their road whites had him confused. At any rate, Reed picked up 16 yards, and Flacco got the ball at the BAL 21. The defense forced a 3-and-out, and the Steelers got the ball back at 8:45. At this point they were down 7-32.
Ben drove the ball from the PIT 38 to the BAL 39, and then threw it to Mewelde Moore. Moore fumbled, courtesy of Ray Lewis, and McPhee picked it up at the BAL 14. The D once again managed a 3-and-out, but in the next series Ben again coughed the ball up during a Suggs sack, and it was picked up by Cory Redding of unblessed memory. The Ravens got the ball at the PIT 9, and 2 minutes later Cundiff kicked yet another FG. The Steelers held the ball for the final two minutes, to no avail.
Turnover differential for 2010 Game 1: 0
Turnover point differential: -3
Final Score: Steelers 15 Falcons 9
Turnover differential for 2011 Game 1: -7
Turnover point differential: -21
Final Score: Steelers 7 Ravens 35
Game 2 (2010) at the Titans was a FF festival, with Timmons, Woodley, Sylvester and Keisel each getting one and Harrison getting two. Furthermore, Troy, McFadden, and Woodley each had an interception. On the Titans side, the lone turnover was by Will Witherspoon.
The first play of Game 2 was Antonio Brown's kick return for a TD. The second play of the game was a FF on the kick returner for Tennessee by Stevenson Sylvester that was recovered by Keyaron Fox. The ensuing series ended with the above-mentioned Witherspoon FF on Dennis Dixon, which was recovered by TEN. That resulted, five plays later, in a FG for Atlanta, their sole points until late in the 4th quarter.
Five minutes later, Troy picked off Vince Young in the end zone for a TB. A long series ensued, during which Dixon fumbled again, this time during the snap. Several Tennessee players almost had it, but Wallace darted into the pack and picked it up. Finally, a minute into the 2nd quarter, Jeff Reed kicked a 36-yard FG.
Dixon was injured at the end of that series, and Charlie Batch came into the game. He carried on the tradition with another fumble during the snap, which Mewelde Moore alertly pounced upon. They then promptly went 3-and-out.
I picture Farrior calling a defense meeting on the sidelines and saying "Okay, guys, the offense isn't going anywhere. We have to pick up the slack." So at 8:35 Woodley picked off a pass and gave the Steelers the ball at their own 45. They managed to get all the way to the TEN 38 before having to punt.
I think Farrior called another meeting and said "Look, guys, we have to give them better field position." So Timmons forced Chris Johnson to cough up the ball, and James Harrison grabbed it, giving it to the offense at the TEN 23 with 1:36 left in the 2nd quarter. This culminated in a 34-yard FG.
The offense had the ball three times in the third quarter and punted twice. So Harrison sighed and forced another fumble out of Vince Young, which was recovered by none other than Steve McLendon. The offense got the ball at the TEN 35, and, you guessed it, got a 25-yard field goal out of it, taking us to the fourth quarter.
Vince Young was benched and replaced by Kerry Collins. After fumbling at his own 39 and recovering it himself, Collins picked himself up off the ground and promptly threw a nice long pass to Bryant McFadden. The Steelers got the ball at their own 46 and promptly went 3-and-out.
Several series later, Woodley forced a fumble that Chris Hoke recovered, thus giving Pittsburgh the ball on the TEN 15. All together now—what was the result? A 27-yard FG.
Three plays later, Keisel forced a fumble, but TEN recovered. Three and a half minutes later Collins threw the sole TD pass of the game, and succeeded in a 2-point conversion attempt.
A recovered onside kick gave the Titans the ball at their own 32 with 58 seconds left, but they didn't manage to score.
Game 2 (2011) vs. the Seahawks fortunately had a much happier ending than Game 1. It didn't look all that promising when Pittsburgh was unable to convert a 4th and 1 on the Seattle 1 yard line at the end of the first series of the game.
However, the offense put 24 points on the board, the defense held Seattle to 0, and neither team turned the ball over during the entire 60 minutes. Which is surprising, really, considering that the Steelers sacked Jackson five times and the Seahawks sacked Ben three times.
Turnover differential for 2010 Game 2: +6
Turnover point differential: +4
Final Score: Steelers 19 Titans 11
Turnover differential for 2011 Game 2: 0
Turnover point differential: 0
Final Score: Steelers 24 Seahawks 0
Game 3 (2010) at Tampa Bay saw the Bucs nab two interceptions, one by Quincy Black and one by Aqib Talib. The Steelers defense had a quiet week, with only one FF by James Farrior and an INT by Brett Keisel.
The Talib INT was on the second snap of the game, and resulted in a FG for Tampa Bay two minutes later.
But the offense kicked it up a notch, and managed a TD 4 minutes later. Tampa Bay then put another FG on the board, but PIT put up another TD early in the 2nd quarter, and I'm guessing that the defense heaved a sigh of relief. Just to be safe, Farrior forced the fumble 2 minutes later that Clark recovered, and Charlie Batch converted it into another TD two plays later.
Although Charlie had thrown another TD late in the 2nd quarter, Keisel decided to make sure everything was okay before taking his foot off the gas. He picked off Josh Freeman on the first play of the 4th quarter and ran it back 79 yards for a TD.
At 6:10 in the 4th quarter Black intercepted a pass, and the Bucs got the ball at their own 32. Four minutes later they converted it to a TD.
Game 3 (2011) vs. the Colts seemed like it should be a fairly easy game, but as they have done with every other opponent, the Manning-less Colts played them tough. And as they have done with every other opponent, they lost to the Steelers, in a game that was way more nerve-wracking than it should have been.
The first turnover by either team was a sack/fumble by Mathis, who had been excessively annoying all game. He recovered it, too, right at mid-field, and although Kerry Collins couldn't get a TD out of it, they did get a FG.
The Steelers weren't as lucky with the next FF, this time by the other seriously annoying Colt, Dwight Freeney. He sacked Ben, forced a fumble, recovered it, and ran it in for a TD.
The very next play, with 1:46 left in the 2nd quarter, Ben was intercepted by Lefeged, who took it 25 yards. Antonio Brown thoughtfully tacked on 5 yards for a Low Block, giving Collins the ball at the PIT 12. Once again they were held to a FG.
No further turnovers occurred until the last 6 minutes of the game, when Curtis Painter was strip/sacked by Harrison, and the ball was grabbed by Troy, who ran it in for a TD. Good thing, too.
Turnover differential for 2010 Game 3: 0
Turnover point differential: +4
Final Score: Steelers 38 Buccaneers 13
Turnover differential for 2011 Game 3: -2
Turnover point differential: -6
Final Score: Steelers 23 Colts 20
Game 4 (2010) vs. the Ravens didn't end as fortuitously as the previous game in Tampa Bay. Despite FFs by Casey Hampton and Harrison and that rarest of beasts, an Ike Taylor INT, and despite only one turnover by the offense, the Ravens pulled it out at the end.
Hampton's FF was the first in the game, but BAL recovered, although they were forced to punt 2 plays later. Harrison's FF early in the 3rd quarter fared better, as Timmons grabbed it to give the Steelers the ball at the BAL 27. But Jeff Reed's 49-yard FG attempt was no good, and no points resulted.
At 3:13 in the 3rd quarter Flacco was intercepted by Ike Taylor, giving the Steelers the ball at the BAL 33. Four plays later they had only gained 6 yards, and again Jeff Reed missed the FG attempt. Ray Lewis intercepted a Hail Mary by Batch with 28 seconds to play—game over. It's frustrating to note that the two missed FG attempts would most likely have won the game. Even one of them would probably have forced overtime.
Game 4 (2011) at Houston began with a FF by Curtis Brown, but HOU recovered. The ensuing drive took almost 11 minutes and ended with a Matt Schaub TD pass. The Steelers drive that followed had that "Oh, no, not again" feeling as Ben was sacked and fumbled in the process, with the Texans recovering. Fortunately, as they did so often that evening, the Texans shot themselves in the foot. A penalty negated the turnover, and Ben got the ball back. The Steelers promptly went 3-and-out.
A Steelers drive at the end of the 2nd quarter ended in a FG attempt. The kick was blocked, and Jonathan Joseph grabbed it and took it 61 yards for a TD, which was nullified by a penalty. As was the pick and 22 yard TD run by Jonathan Josephs at the end of the 4th quarter. But Ben wasn't finished. He managed two first downs. Then with 19 seconds left on the clock he threw the ball to Jason Allen. Unfortunately, Allen doesn't play for the Steelers.
Turnover differential for 2010 Game 4: +1
Turnover point differential: 0
Final Score: Steelers 14 Ravens 17
Turnover differential for 2011 Game 4: -1
Turnover point differential: 0
Final Score: Steelers 10 Texans 17
Defensive (+) turnovers in 2010 through Game 4: 12
Offensive (-) turnovers in 2010 through Game 4: 5
Defensive turnovers in 2011 through Game 4: 1
Offensive turnovers in 2011 through Game 4: 11
Well, at first blush my theory isn't faring very well. The Steelers managed a net 5 additional points during the first four games of the season last year, although they were already +7 in turnover differential. But if we look more closely we can see that in every win so far in either season, the Steelers won the games with a positive turnover point differential by more than 7 points. Games with a neutral or negative point differential resulted in either a W by less than 7 points or a loss. The sole exception is the Seahawks game, but that game is an anomaly, at least so far, with neither side generating a turnover.
I also believe that those turnovers by the Steelers defense/special teams were not only worth the points they accrued—they potentially also kept points off the other side of the board. There is no way to tell how the games would have actually played out, but I suspect it's a rare occasion where a defensive turnover leaves you worse off than you were before.
But we can also see that the offense didn't make the most of the turnovers generated by the defense. Maybe that's why the D isn't working all that hard for them this season. After all, if the offense is just going to go 3-and-out, you might just as well stay on the field.
Naturally, I don't actually believe that last part. I do, however, believe that more turnovers will come as we continue into the season. Here's hoping that they will be mainly be the sort that gives the ball to the Steelers..