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Steelers defense is forcing punts, but lack of takeaways can hurt them

The 2012 version of the Steelers' defense is impressive in terms of getting the ball back to the offense, but the lack of takeaways is hurting them. Their 20-14 loss at Cleveland in Week 12 is an example of the value of takeaways vs. punts.

Matt Sullivan

If the opponent doesn't have the ball, the opponent cannot score. There's some Football 101. It's the basis of an aggressive, lower percentage defensive philosophy some teams (the 2009 New Orleans Saints in particular) have ridden to great success in the NFL. Not being able to score is more associated with a loss than not allowing your opponent to score.

By physical property and NFL rules, each team must receive the ball at least once every game (to start the first or the third quarters). Odds are pretty good they'll have it at least seven times in a game. Forcing the opponent to give the ball back is so important, they have half the team (sometimes more) dedicated to the art of offensive prevention - a.k.a. defense.

Does it matter how the defense gets the ball back to the offense? Does a turnover carry with it more magical properties than forcing a team to punt?

It's a fair question to dive into, considering the Steelers' defense is on pace to be ranked near the bottom of the AFC for the second consecutive year in takeaways (

Through 11 games in 2012, the Steelers have six interceptions (tied for 28th in the NFL) nine forced fumbles (21st)and four recoveries (25th).

The 2011 Steelers finished the year the league's top-ranked defensive unit in scoring, allowing 14.5 points per game. They finished 18th in forced fumbles and 30th in fumble recoveries.

The Browns recovered more fumbles - five - in Week 12 than the Steelers have all year, and more than they did all last year.

So how is this defense preventing points from being scored with such low takeaway stats?

This season, much of it can be attributed to the fact they allow a low percentage of third downs to be converted. Teams are moving the chains 34.3 percent of their third down opportunities against the Steelers (6th lowest in the NFL) and only 102 of their 178 third downs have been converted in the air.

Arizona is the second-lowest at 114.

Is this an "ends justify the means" conversation, though? The Steelers get the ball back and don't allow points, is how they're getting the ball back important at all?

Technically, whether you regain possession via a punt or a turnover is irrelevant to meet that goal. Turnovers carry with them, though, the highly valuable advantage of field position.

Week 12 is an excellent example of that value. The Browns average starting field position on 15 drives (not including one right before the half) was their 41 yard line.

The Steelers began on average at their 22.

The Browns punted 10 times, and five of them went inside the 20 yard line, although punter Reggie Hodges only had a net average of 38.3 yards per punt.

Three of Cleveland's four scoring drives (two touchdowns and a field goal) came off turnovers. They only gained 238 yards despite winning the time of possession battle comfortably (33:30).

Basically, the Steelers' defense performed admirably in terms of allowing offenses to move the ball. Cleveland's defense took the ball away from Pittsburgh eight times, setting up outstanding field position, and capitalizing for 13 of their 20 points.

The Browns won this game because of their defense's ability to take the ball away from the Steelers. Conversely, the Steelers only had one takeaway - on the third play of the game - and while they converted it into seven points, they did not set their offense up with decent field position.

It's fair to point out the special teams' role in the field position game as well, but if the defense isn't getting the ball back from the opponent, the offense has to work that much harder.

This isn't to suggest the Steelers defense was a problem in this game, it just goes to show the value of turnovers. Forcing the opponent to give the ball back is always a good thing, but taking it back instead of allowing them to punt has substantially much more value.