The Pittsburgh Steelers defense led the league in creating turnovers last season. This statistic still seems unbelievable to me, considering the epic struggles endured by the defense to do just that during the previous seasons.
Part of the problem stemmed from a lack of impact players at crucial positions and from a frustrating tendency of missed opportunities. Far too often the defense would force a fumble only to see the offense recover, or a pass deflection fall harmlessly to the ground. They were consistently a day late and a dollar short, meaning they could create opportunities but struggled to capitalize.
So what did the Steelers do to rectify that problem? They utilized a portion of training camp practices to focus on not only creating opportunities, but also on completing their efforts. They focused on better ball skills and awareness.
We have all heard the old adage that talented defenders would be offensive skill position players if they had better ball skills. The Steelers defensive coaches weren't expecting miracles, only incremental improvement. The results of their training camp efforts were remarkable.
The Steelers defense led the league with 38 takeaways last season, categorized by a previously unthinkable 20 interceptions and 18 fumble recoveries. Mission accomplished.
This brings us to the million-dollar question. What deficiency should the Steelers focus on in what will almost assuredly be limited training camp practice time this year? I have an idea which almost immediately came to mind: Improved blocking for the kick return units. In fact, any improvement would have been a long time coming.
This mission statement would fall at the feet of special teams coach Danny Smith, a man better known for his ability to chew massive amounts of bubble gum while frantically orchestrating the chaos from the sideline than his actual coaching prowess. Seriously, I am half joking obviously, but I digress.
Too many times the Steelers kick returners have had zero opportunity for a run back due to subpar blocking. On the rare occasions they manage some positive return yards, we fans instantly scan the field looking for the inevitable yellow flag. This is the case more often than not. The penalty of choice for Steelers blockers is the infamous holding call, with the block in the back call a distant second. These calls have been a common refrain during Smith's tenure.
The issues appear at first glance to be an easier fix than the lack of turnovers previously discussed. Re-purposing a portion of camp toward teaching proper technique and improved fundamentals should go a long way toward fixing this longstanding special teams issue.
I have to believe that improvement in this area is possible, and any improvement could make a huge impact this season toward getting the Steelers back into the playoffs where they belong.