The Pittsburgh Steelers 2021 season can be remembered for a lot of reasons. Ben Roethlisberger’s final year in the league, Najee Harris’ first year as a professional, a run defense which was more porous than stout, and even a defense which struggled to take the football away.
As I looked back at statistics from the 2021 season, something drew me to the team’s turnover differential number. The 2020 season had the Steelers near the top of the league in takeaways, but turnover differential is a different statistic altogether. It combines both takeaways, and turnovers. Plain and simple, teams who are high in the turnover differential category are usually teams who are able to take their team into the postseason.
Before diving into the specifics around the 2021 Steelers, I wanted to take a look back at the team’s differential, and I went all the way back to 2018. Take a look:
2018 Turnover Differential: -11
2019 Turnover Differential: +8
2020 Turnover Differential: +9
2021 Turnover Differential: +2
At this point, you might be thinking to yourself, “Differential is a combination of statistics. Both turnovers and takeaways, so what is the breakdown of each season?” Great question. Check out the Steelers’ takeaways, by year, below:
2018 Takeaways: 15
2019 Takeaways: 38
2020 Takeaways: 27
2021 Takeaways: 22
Once you look at the takeaways, you have to also look at the turnovers by year. Here you go:
2018 Turnovers: 26
2019 Turnovers: 30
2020 Turnovers: 18
2021 Turnovers: 20
Going back to the overall differential, I was curious as to how the teams who made the playoffs, both AFC and NFC, compared when it comes to this statistical category. Here is how it played out:
2021 Playoff Teams
Dallas Cowboys: +14
Green Bay Packers: +13
Arizona Cardinals: +12
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: +10
Buffalo Bills: +8
New England Patriots: +7
Kansas City Chiefs: +4
Los Angeles Rams: +2
Pittsburgh Steelers: +2
Cincinnati Bengals: 0
Philadelphia Eagles: 0
Tennessee Titans: -3
San Francisco 49ers: -4
Las Vegas Raiders: -9
While the vast majority of the teams who made the playoffs finished on the positive side of this, I was stunned to see teams like the Titans, 49ers and Raiders all finish in the negative. Maybe it’s just me, but the next logical question I had regarding the differential was what about teams who showed great promise in differential, but missed the postseason? Let’s take a look at the teams who finished on the plus side of the differential, but missed the postseason:
Teams who didn’t make the 2021-2022 Playoffs
When I started this statistical dive, I was hoping to find a clear cut correlation between teams who finished in the positive on turnover differential, but that didn’t exist. The majority of teams did finish in the positive, but it wasn’t necessarily a prerequisite to getting into the playoffs.
Looking specifically at the Steelers’ data, you can’t ignore the fact the team’s takeaways have steadily decreased the past two seasons. The 2019 season was a Herculean effort by the defense to keep the team competitive without Ben Roethlisberger, and this makes one wonder if another effort will be required going forward without Roethlisberger. After all, when you look at the astonishing 38 takeaways in 2019, it was only a whopping 30 turnovers which almost negated the defense’s performance.
What will it take in 2022 for the Steelers to not just be competitive, but make the playoffs? Clearly, finishing the season on the positive side of the turnover differential is a huge step in the right direction, but the team’s ability to give their offense extra possessions will be critical. Regardless of who the quarterback will be, those extra possessions could be the difference between wins and losses.
If you were someone who thought turnover differential was a golden ticket to success, while it helps, it is far from the only metric which matters.
Be sure to stay tuned to BTSC for the latest news and notes surrounding the Steelers as they prepare for the new league year and the 2022 NFL Draft.