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When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ turnover margin, takeaways are key

Evaluating game outcomes based on turnovers and takeaways since 2007.

New England Patriots v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Turnovers. Takeaways. Turnover margin.

It seems as if I’ve been extensively poring over these stats to a point where my mind melts at the very mention of any of them. But next to the statistic of “points scored versus points given up each game” they may be the most telling statistics of all. The Steelers had 26 turnovers in 2018, which is better then the team average since 1970 of 31 and just above the team average since 2000 of 25 turnovers a season. But the Steelers’ 15 takeaways in 2018 were tied for the franchise low (2011). Not only is that the lowest in franchise history, other than the 2011 season the next lowest amount of any year is 20.

While looking at the yearly statistics can help gauge a team’s overall success, what is more accurate is looking at individual games and how particular stats lead to a win or a loss. In order to help sort through the data, I will be sticking to statistics since the 2007 season (the Tomlin era).

The most obvious statistic teams look at other than the scoreboard is turnover margin. Since 2007, the Steelers are 62-7 (.886) in regular season games in which they have a positive turnover margin, and they are 38-16 (.704) when the margin is zero. When the Steelers have a negative turnover margin, their regular season record plummets to 25-42-1 (.375). When it comes to the playoffs, the Steelers are 7–0 with a positive turnover margin, 0-1 with an even margin, and 1–6 when in the negative.

The Steelers’ records with these various turnover margins are pretty much what most fans would expect. When the Steelers play even strength in the turnover battle, they win 70% of their games. When the Steelers are on the negative side of turnovers, it is difficult, yet not impossible, for them to come through. When the turnover margin is in the Steelers favor, they are extremely successful. In fact, when the Steelers have a turnover margin of +2, they have only lost one game in the Mike Tomlin era: the 23-20 overtime loss at home to the Ravens in Week 4 of 2015.

So turnover margin is obviously important, but for the Steelers the driving force behind this margin is takeaways. Yes, fewer turnovers will help. But in looking just at turnovers, they do not paint quite the same pictures as takeaways.

When the Steelers play a regular season game without a turnover, they are 37-7 (.841) since 2007. What’s interesting is the Steelers are 88-59-1 (.598) when they have a turnover in a game. So even when the Steelers turn the ball over, they still have a greater chance of winning the game than losing. This basically holds true for the playoffs as well, as the Steelers are 1-0 in games without a turnover, and 7-7 in games with at least one giveaway.

So while turnovers are bad, takeaways are even more important to the good. The Steelers are 108-34-1 (.759) in the regular season since 2007 when they have at least one takeaway. Of those 34 losses, only eight were games where they finished with a positive turnover ratio. When the Steelers fail to take the ball from their opponents, they are 17-32 (.347). In the playoffs, the Steelers are 8-3 in games with a takeaway and are 0-4 in games without a takeaway.

So while Steelers are slightly more likely to win a game with no turnovers than a game with a takeaway, they are far more likely to lose a game without a takeaway than a game with a turnover.

In conclusion, turnover margin is an extremely important statistic in every game. While turnovers are never a good thing, takeaways are truly the driving force behind the turnover margin, and as a result the Steelers’ success. So pessimists, the game is not over just because the Steelers cough it up. And for you optimists out there, once the Steelers get one of those coveted takeaways, things are looking very good.