Before the start of the 2017 regular season, if you would have told me the Steelers' defense, one still in the rebuilding stages after the glory days of Dick LeBeau, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, would go on to lead the league in sacks with 56, I would have waited around with bated breath for some sort of highlight video, detailing all those awesome takeaways and defensive touchdowns.
I'm sure whatever official 2017 video the Jaguars release this summer will highlight their defense's 55 sacks, but it will likely also pay tribute to its 33 takeaways and those seven touchdown returns—including two against Pittsburgh (three, if you count the playoff game on January 14).
I'm not much of a football expert, but I always kind of assumed a defense that was capable of producing well-over 50 sacks (and countless quarterback hits and pressures) would somehow be able to also scare up its share of takeaways and defensive touchdowns.
Unfortunately, Keith Butler's unit, while often ferocious, hard-hitting and obviously sack-capable in 2017, was far-from opportunistic.
In 16 regular season games, Pittsburgh managed a very underwhelming 22 takeaways to go along with zero, that's right, zero defensive touchdowns.
How does that even happen?
I mean, if you're getting to the quarterback as many times as the Steelers did on a consistent basis last year, how do you not manage a few more strip sacks, or a few more errant throws that result in interceptions?
How do you come away with exactly six fumble recoveries the entire season?
The whole thing just doesn't add up, especially when you consider the World Champion Philadelphia Eagles' defense managed to get the quarterback to the turf just 26 times in 2017, yet it was able to record 31 takeaways and six touchdown returns.
For years, starting in 2011, the Steelers defense, one that was "old, slow and it's over " by that point, struggled to get to the quarterback to the tune of about 35 sacks a season. As the years progressed, and the lack of a consistent pass-rush continued, I just assumed this was a big part of the reason the defense averaged under 20 takeaways a season between 2011-2014.
In 2015, Pittsburgh's defense posted a more than impressive 48 sacks, along with 30 takeaways.
Again, I just assumed those things went hand-in-hand, and the defense was becoming opportunistic again.
But that just hasn't happened.
Those 22 takeaways Pittsburgh recorded last year were preceded by just 23 the season before.
As we painfully found out last season, turnovers often play a vital role in the outcome of a football game.
A blocked field goal—effectively a turnover—ultimately proved to be the difference in an overtime loss to the Bears in Week 3.
Two quick interceptions returned for touchdowns in the third quarter helped the Jaguars come into Heinz Field and rout the Steelers, 30-9, in Week 5.
In the playoff rematch at Heinz, two turnovers—an interception and strip sack—led to 14 points in a game that was ultimately decided by three.
And, of course, Pittsburgh may not have had to face perhaps its worst possible match-up in the divisional round, if not for that deflected pass that was intercepted in the end zone in the final seconds of that devastating regular loss to the Patriots a few weeks earlier.
As it pertains to the Steelers lack of an opportunistic defense, you can blame the unfortunate injury to Ryan Shazier if you want, but that didn't happen until Week 13.
Besides, Shazier only missed a few games in 2016, when Pittsburgh's defense managed to post those measly 23 takeaways.
So why didn't sacks and takeaways go together for the Steelers defense last year?
If I had those answers, I'd be writing a different article. I do know opportunistic defenses have almost always been a main theme for any Super Bowl champion, as evidenced by the average of about 36 per year every Lombardi winner has posted over the past 52 regular seasons.
There have been some exceptions in recent years, namely the Patriots two most-recent Super Bowl champions, but, for the most part, if you don't take the football away at a reasonable rate, you don't win a Super Bowl.
The Steelers have solved many problems, as they've made the transition from Super Bowl contender in the 00's to Super Bowl contender in the 10's.
But one thing the Steelers haven't been able to solve—even in 2017, when they set a team record with 56 sacks—is their inability to produce an opportunistic defense.