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Takeaways, the Blake Rake in particular, becoming signature moves for Steelers defense

The frequency of them waxes and wanes, but key takeaways in critical situations have led Steelers into a playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens.

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn't planned, exactly, but it wasn't a surprise, either.

Steelers cornerback Antwon Blake pursued Cincinnati wide receiver A.J. Green from Green's right side. Green had just made a catch, driving into Pittsburgh territory for what appeared to be at least a game-tying field goal.

Blake changed all of that by simply following his coach's advice.

"Coach said all week, [No.] 18 won’t put the ball away when he catches it, so strip it out," said Brice McCain, as written by the Post Gazette's Gene Collier, who also dubbed the play The Blake Rake. "It was big for us, a big part of the game that we really needed."

The Blake Rake highlighted a three-takeaway performance by the Steelers in their win over the Bengals in the AFC North title game. An Andy Dalton overthrow along with a miscommunication between Dalton and Green led to McCain's two interceptions prior to Blake's forced fumble and his own recovery. That play highlighted a Steelers' defensive performance that appears to becoming more and more comfortable in establishing its own identity.

Keys in division title win

See Brown run all over the Bengals in Pittsburgh's AFC North title-clincing win.

Takeaways aren't coming in piles, but they sure are timely. The Blake Rake comes a game after Steelers rookie defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt blasted Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, forcing a fumble in the fourth quarter and giving the Steelers what would end up being the game-clinching touchdown. Against Atlanta in Week 15, William Gay returned an interception for a touchdown in the first half, and the Steelers took the game 27-20.

For all the accolades this Steelers' offense has had this season, the defense has, at minimum, carried its weight during the team's four-game winning streak - tying their mark for the longest winning streak this club has had since 2012. During that streak, the Steelers' defense has seven takeaways, giving them a +4 differential in the last quarter of the season, and finishing at zero on the season.

That's a vast improvement from the -4 they finished with in 2013, and the whopping -10 they had in 2012 or the -13 they had in 2011, becoming the first team with a turnover differential that low to qualify for the postseason.

Still, the frequency in which these takeaways appear is spotty. A bad throw by Dalton can negate an interception thrown on The Worst Fake Punt in History (a duck flipped in the air by Steelers punter Brad Wing against Cincinnati), and McCain played the miscommunication between Green and Dalton perfectly. He made a play on the ball, even if Green did not.

The Steelers didn't capitalize on that pick but in the end, but their two touchdowns scored on the other two takeaways out-paced Cincinnati's 10 points scored on three takeaways of their own.

That will continue to be a critical statistic as the Steelers advance to a fourth career postseason game against rival Baltimore. Against no other division team has that statistic been more important; this year, the Steelers had a -3 turnover differential and lost 26-6. They had a +1 in Week 9 and won 43-23.

With the possibility of being without running back Le'Veon Bell, and the probability of him being less than 100 percent if he is on the field, the Steelers will have to rely more on downfield passing, and in that, risk turnovers. The Ravens are only one takeaway better than the Steelers this season (22 to 21) but with three of them having come against the Steelers in Week 2, it's an area of concern.

Their two takeaways against the Ravens this year, though - a Jason Worilds interception and a McCain fumble recovery - both led to touchdowns.

The more the Steelers defense can takeaway, the more their offense will be able to give to the scoreboard. It's just a matter of making it happen on the field.