If you want to say Pittsburgh wasn’t prepared in oh so many ways to play an opponent that entered Week 6 as a 7.5-point home underdog (for example, several players had major problems dealing with the near-90 degree Miami heat), give it a shot.
If you are concerned about the knee injury that forced quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to the locker room midway through the second quarter and had a fan base ready to throw in the Terrible Towel with regards to any hope of a Super Bowl run in 2016, can’t really blame you—if Roethlisberger’s knee injury lingers or is deemed worse than it appeared after he played the entire second half on Sunday, you might as well fly that towel at half mast
But let’s just say Roethlisberger is fine and goes on the throw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns this year. That still might not be enough to lead the team to Super Bowl glory if the defense doesn’t go on a takeaway splurge starting fairly soon.
And that’s my takeaway from Sunday’s game: the continued lack of takeaways for the Steelers defense.
Maybe you didn’t notice when Keith Butler’s charges were failing to get after Dolphins’ quarterback Ryan Tannehill all afternoon and flailing hopelessly at running back Jay Ajayi as he rushed for 204 yards, but for the third time in four weeks, the defense failed to produce a single takeaway.
The Dolphins sure did force some takeaways—two Roethlisberger interceptions to be exact—and turned them into 10 points.
On a day when the offense wasn’t clicking (just 237 yards outside of Darrius Heyward-Bey’s early 60-yard touchdown run on an end-around), a timely takeaway could have altered the course and ultimate outcome of the game.
That’s the beauty of timely takeaways: as the Steelers’ defense proved a year ago, when it registered 30 of them despite finishing 21st in yards—including 30th against the pass—they can make up for so much.
Pittsburgh’s defense has been lauded so far this year for its ability to hold teams to field goals once they reach the red zone.
Early on, Sunday’s game was no exception, as the defense limited the Dolphins to nine points over the first 20 minutes, this despite three drives that reached the 12, four and 12-yard lines, respectively (the third field goal drive actually started at the 13, following the first of Roethlisberger’s two interceptions that happened on the same play in which he hurt his knee).
That’s 136 total yards on three drives that resulted in points, yes, but only nine of them, which certainly explained the often frustrated look on the face of Dolphins’ head coach Adam Gase during the early portion of the afternoon.
But remember a year ago, when opponents often failed to register even a field goal, thanks to numerous takeaways that happened inside the 20?
And, as I alluded to earlier, remember a year ago, when turnovers in general occurred at a much higher pace than they have so far this year?
On the Dolphins next offensive possession following Heyward-Bey’s touchdown, Big Play William Gay timed a Tannehill pass perfectly and briefly had an interception right there in his hands. Even though he was moving away from Miami’s end zone, had Gay been able to corral the pick, there appeared to be enough time and space for him to alter his course and run unencumbered down the left sideline for a score that would have surely led to another one of his weird celebrations, along with a 15-3 lead.
For a Dolphins team that came into Sunday’s action with a 1-4 record on the heels of a demoralizing 30-17 home loss to the Titans a week earlier, a lightning-fast 12-point first quarter deficit may have sapped any remaining adrenaline that existed at kickoff.
Instead, Tannehill’s pass slipped right through Gay’s hands, and the much-maligned quarterback was off the hook—and so were the Dolphins.
Through six weeks, the Steelers defense has six takeaways, which, obviously means it’s on pace for 16. Why is that important? No previous Super Bowl-winning team ever had a defense that recorded less than 25 in a non-strike season, with the average winner coming in at just under 37.
In-order for the Steelers defense to reach 25, it will have to average nearly two takeaways a game over the final 10.
While the lack of takeaways over the past month is rather alarming, the good news is the drought started in Week 3 against the Eagles, which not so coincidentally was the game in-which inside linebacker Ryan Shazier sprained his MCL.
Shazier was hobbled for the majority of the Philadelphia game and has sat out the last three weeks recovering from the injury.
Shazier may have a history of being injury-prone, but there’s no doubt he’s the one player on the defense capable of forcing and coming up with turnovers on a regular basis. This is why Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert made him the 15th pick of the 2014 NFL Draft.
Compounding matters against the Dolphins was the absence of star defensive end Cameron Heyward, who was out with a hamstring injury suffered against the Jets last week. Coming off maybe the best performance of his career when he registered three sacks against the Chiefs on October 2, that was a pretty huge blow for the entire team, but for the defense in particular. (Don’t you think Heyward would have been licking his chops this week, as he prepared to face a Miami offensive line that yielded 17 sacks in five games?)
You can rank them anyway you like, but there’s no disputing the fact that Shazier and Heyward are the Steelers top two players--and top two difference-makers—on defense.
Missing one or the other is tough enough, but missing both of them? In-addition to the lack of takeaways, that may also explain the 222 rushing yards, 474 total yards, 24 first downs and over 36 minutes in time of possession the defense allowed on Sunday.
Bottom line: while the Steelers defense has become good at bending but not breaking, it’s also developed a penchant for being opportunistic and coming up with timely takeaways.
Against the Dolphins on Sunday, the defense showed that, without its two most disruptive forces in-action, it could only bend so much.
The sooner Ryan Shazier and Cameron Heyward get healthy, the better the Steelers bend but don’t break defense will be in 2016.