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The Steelers defense didn’t meet the turnover threshold for Super Bowl success in 2016, but neither did the Patriots’

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While overall history tells us that opportunistic defenses are key to Super Bowl success, recent results show a decline in the importance of takeaways.

Super Bowl LI - New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

If there’s been one real constant for the first 51 Super Bowl champions, dating back to the Packers victory over the Chiefs in Super Bowl I in January of 1967, it’s that these teams have had defenses that take the football away at a high rate.

How high, you ask?

The previous 51 Super Bowl champions averaged just under 36.2 takeaways during the regular season.

Therefore, when a head coach stresses winning the turnover battle while he addresses a sideline reporter at halftime, it’s not just a football cliche without merit.

If you don’t have a defense that takes the football away consistently enough during the regular season, you can probably bet the house your home city isn’t going to be planning any parades in early February.

During the Super Bowl’s first 50 editions, no champion’s defense recorded less than 25 takeaways in the regular season, save for the 1982 Redskins, who totaled 24 in a nine-game strike-shortened year (averaged out over 16 games, that comes to 42.6 takeaways).

With that in mind, as the Steelers defense, coming off a 23-takeaway 2016 campaign, headed to New England to take on the Patriots in the AFC Championship game on January 22, you may have had a sinking feeling. And after a 36-17 pasting that included zero takeaways, you were certainly justified in your concerns.

After all, with Super Bowl history showing us that 25 was the magic number for teams wanting to hoist the Lombardi, the winner of SBLI would have had at least that many takeaways during the regular season...obviously.

But times, they are a changin’.

Not only did the Patriots defense match Pittsburgh’s by creating just 23 turnovers during the 2016 campaign, the NFC representative in Super Bowl LI (and presumed winner up until the game’s final moments), the Falcons, recorded just 22.

Therefore, unless the Packers (25 takeaways by the defense) had found a way to get past Atlanta in the NFC title game and then knock off the Patriots in the championship round, the winner of Super Bowl LI was going to make history--at least as it pertained the 25-takeaway threshold.

So, was the 2016 regular season a statistical anomaly when examining the relationship between Super Bowl success and opportunistic defenses?

Not if you research the past five Super Bowl champions, whose defenses have averaged 27.8 takeaways (delete the 39 the Seahawks recorded in 2013, and the average would drop to an even 25).

And if you go back over the past 10 seasons, the Lombardi raisers have averaged 29.5 takeaways during the regular season.

As for that average number of just under 36.2 over the first 51 Super Bowls? That is a drop of almost a percentage point from where it stood five seasons ago, following the Giants victory over New England in Super Bowl XLVI in January of 2012.

Also, over the first 38 Super Bowls, there were 16 winners whose defenses took the football away at least 40 times during the regular season, but none since the Patriots recorded 41 in 2003.

What does this all mean? That thanks to—among other things—the predominance of spread offenses run by quarterbacks with quicker trigger fingers than ever before, it’s going to be harder and harder to take the football away, thus lessening the importance of opportunistic defenses moving forward?


In other words, newly-reinstated receiver Martavis Bryant may be more important to the Steelers 2017 Super Bowl prospects than whatever improvements the young and seemingly talented defense continues to make.

If you can’t take the football away from the Patriots in 2017 (I mean, who are we kidding?), you better be able to outscore them if you want to reach the Promised Land.

(All statistics were acquired thanks to Pro Football Reference and the calculator on my smartphone.)