5 for Friday: Valuing the football matters

Protecting the football matters.

The Steelers are tied for second in the NFL entering Week 10 in turnover ratio at plus-8. Perhaps more importantly, they're tied for fourth in the league with the fewest giveaways with eight.

Coming into this season, the team that wins the turnover battle gets a victory 69.6 percent of the time. And that increases if you win the turnover margin by two (83.9 percent of the time) or three or more (90.7).

And if you consistently win the turnover battle over the course of a season, you invariably win more games. In 2022, none of the teams that finished the season in the top 15 in turnover ratio finished less than one game under .500. But just two of the teams that finished in the bottom 17 in turnover ratio had winning records.

That has certainly held true for the Steelers this season. They're 5-1 when they win the turnover battle, with the only loss coming in Week 1 against the 49ers. So, obviously that is nothing new.

But one thing that doesn't get considered into the play of quarterbacks as often is their overall protection of the football.

Everyone looks at interceptions because that is one statistic that is readily available. And even though quarterbacks aren't always necessarily to blame for throwing an interception, they take the bulk of the blame because interceptions show up in their statistics.

Something that is rarely considered, however, are fumbles.

And that's where Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett has been excellent in his young career.

Through his first 21 career games, Pickett has fumbled five times. That might sound like a lot until you consider that 10 quarterbacks this season already have five or more fumbles, led by the 11 Josh Dobbs has had in nine games this season. Lamar Jackson is second with 10, while Tua Tagovailoa and Zach Wilson are third with eight each.

So, even though Jackson has thrown just three interceptions this season, he's put the ball on the ground 10 times, with opponents recovering six of them. Those matter, too. And it was most certainly a factor in the Steelers' 17-10 victory over the Ravens earlier this season, when Jackson threw an interception and also lost a fumble.

Pickett? He's thrown four interceptions this season – just one since Week 2 and none in his past 124 pass attempts – and has fumbled once.

Ball security in the pocket is something the Steelers and quarterback coach Mike Sullivan have stressed.

"Absolutely. As we're watching film, we're always, 'Two hands on the football,'" Steelers backup quarterback Mitch Trubisky said. "When you really get in trouble is when you have one hand on it and the ball gets away from you. It's a big emphasis for coach Sullivan anytime we're in the pocket. Especially with the rules changing how you're able to hit quarterbacks with the roughing the passer rules, landing on quarterbacks and all of that, the emphasis is really on taking the ball away.

"Guys are going to try to take the ball away rather than hit you in the pocket because they don't want to get fined or get a penalty. That's where the ball security has become even bigger. We look at fumbles the same as interceptions. If the ball's on the ground, you're lucky if you recover it. You've got to be able to protect the football."

There's been a lot of emphasis on Pickett's fourth-quarter statistics in his young career. And there's obviously some merit to that. He's got a 108.2 passer rating in the fourth quarter of games this season and has led six fourth-quarter comebacks and has seven game-winning drives in his first 20 career starts.

But that's not by accident, either.

It seems so much of the emphasis on Pickett is that he doesn't do this or doesn't do that. But one thing he has consistently not done is put the ball in harm's way early in games.

Of his 13 career interceptions, six have come in the fourth quarter when he's trying to make a big play to win the game. And the majority of those came early last season when he was still feeling things out in the league.

"He does a great job of protecting the football. I think being in college for five years, having that experience and playing last year, and also you see it with our defense, we're going to be in it until the end," Trubisky said. "So, if you play smart and protect the football, we're going to be in it in the fourth quarter. I think that's what he sees and I think he does a great job of protecting the football and having two hands on it in the pocket and then making great decisions."

The ability to be able to win games has been something that everyone has talked about early in Pickett's career. But it's also just as noteworthy that he doesn't often lose them for the Steelers.

• Trubisky brings up a very legitimate point when it comes to defensive players and roughing the passer penalties.

After a decrease in those penalties in 2022, when just 93 were called in 284 total games, an average of .328 per game, we've already seen 64 roughing the passer penalties called in 136 games in 2023. That's an average of .471 per game, a marked increase.

That still, however, pales in comparison to the number of roughing penalties called in 2021, when there were 154 called in 285 games, meaning there was one called in every .540 games.

Players aren't hitting quarterbacks any more or less than they were a few years ago. And we've already seen some ridiculous plays called "roughing." For example, Steelers safety Keanu Neal's was penalized for a hit on Jacksonville's Trevor Lawrence two weeks ago, but not fined by the league, meaning the NFL viewed it as a clean play.

But we are seeing more quarterback fumbles. Last season, four quarterbacks – Justin Fields, Matt Ryan, Josh Allen and Lawrence – had 10 or more fumbles over the course of the season. In fact, the statuesque Ryan had a ridiculous 15 in just 12 games, which led to his eventual benching in Indianapolis.

This season, we've got 10 quarterbacks on pace to reach double digits in fumbles.

• There is a feeling in some circles that Najee Harris is having a down season. But that's not been the case.

Harris ranks second in the NFL in broken tackles with 14, three behind leader Travis Etienne of Jacksonville. But when you look closer, Harris is producing a broken tackle once every 7.1 rushing attempts, which leads the NFL.

He just doesn't have the number of rushing attempts of Etienne, who is breaking a tackle once every 8.9 carries. Etienne has 51 more rushing attempts than Harris, who enters Week 10 with 100 carries.

Then there's the always important running back statistic yards after contact. Breece Hall of the Jets leads the league in that important statistic at 2.4 yards after the first defender contacts him.

Harris is tied for sixth in the NFL with Tennessee's Derrick Henry at 2.0 yards after contact.

In addition to Hall, the running backs ahead of Harris in terms of yards after contact include the Colts' Jonathan Taylor, San Francisco's Christian McCaffery, James Cook of the Bills and Jahmyr Gibbs of the Lions.

Jaylen Warren, by the way, has seven broken tackles on 56 rushing attempts and is averaging 1.9 yards after contact, so he's been very effective, as well.

• Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin's decision to have rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr. shadow Tennessee's DeAndre Hopkins at times last week wasn't just about Porter's coverage ability. There was a lot more that went into the decision than simply putting the best coverage corner on Tennessee's top receiving threat.

"It's good that Joey wants an assignment like that, but it has to be good for us," Tomlin said this week. "And there were a lot of things that made it advantageous for us. You know, a lot of their run game went away from (Hopkins) and so, Joey didn't have to worry about a lot of run game fits and dealing with (Derrick) Henry. All of your screens went away from him and so, he didn't have to worry about screen fits.

Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

"And so, there's a young guy with some natural coverage abilities and skills and some other components of his game of growing and developing and just by virtue of traveling with D Hop some of those other things got minimized. And so, there's always a lot of depth to decisions and oftentimes it's some other things that are equally as important as some obvious things in terms of decision making."

Those are things most people don't think about when it comes to making a decision such as having Porter travel with a certain receiver.

• One other thing that isn't taken into consideration is how rookies will respond to certain things.

With Broderick Jones now getting an extended look at right tackle, the Steelers' first four draft picks – Jones, Porter, defensive tackle Keeanu Benton and tight end Darnell Washington are all playing important snaps.

But Benton and Washington aren't being counted upon to start and play the majority of snaps. Benton has played just over 40 percent of the team's defensive snaps, while Washington has played just over 45 percent of the offensive snaps.

An offensive tackle and a cornerback never come off the field because of the positions they play.

Easing those two players into the lineup helps avoid them both hitting the rookie wall. Jones, for example, started 14 games last season at Georgia. Even with the two games he's started this season already for the Steelers, he would only reach that total again if the team gets to the Super Bowl.

The same goes for Porter, who now has started two games, as well.

After his rookie season in 2017, T.J. Watt admitted the next he hit the rookie wall late in his rookie year.

The Steelers have plans on playing deep into this season. They don't want Jones and Porter hitting any kind of rookie wall.