There was much the Pittsburgh Steelers sought to improve based upon last season's totally unsatisfying 12-4 finish, but to pick just two areas standing between them and a run at another championship, red zone efficiency and takeaways are a good place to start.
In 2011, the Steelers ranked in the bottom half of the league in red zone efficiency and they were last in the league in takeaways with 15. Based on a roster that includes Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback, the bottom half in red zone efficiency is as unacceptable as ranking last in the league in takeaways despite having two of the previous four NFL Defensive Players of the Year in the starting lineup.
Coach Mike Tomlin insists there is no room in the NFL for style points, and while that's undeniably true when the games count in the standings, the preseason is a time seemingly created for style points.
Today, the Steelers are 1-1 in this preseason following last night's 26-24 win over the Indianapolis Colts at Heinz Field, and that one-for-two also is a decent representation of where they are in the quest to improve their red zone efficiency and number of takeaways.
The Steelers finished with two takeaways – both interceptions of Indianapolis' prized rookie Andrew Luck – and Ike Taylor returned the first of those 49 yards for a touchdown. Taylor made an All-Pro play in covering Reggie Wayne, reading the sideline route, cutting underneath and then catching the football. The second interception, by Cortez Allen, came on a lucky bounce of the ball, but good fortune is as much a part of taking the ball away in the NFL as some sterling individual effort.
"We're just trying to play ball and play winning football," said Tomlin. "If we play hard enough and good enough technically and assignment-wise, then turnovers are going to come."
Not so impressive this preseason is the offense's performance in the red zone. After two games, the Steelers are 1-for-6 in the red zone after going 0-for-3 against the Colts. The Steelers also were 0-for-2 in goal-to-go situations against Indianapolis, and when their 1-for-2 in goal-to-go against the Eagles is added, that's 1-for-4 in that category.
A better performance in the red zone against the Eagles, and the Steelers leave Philadelphia with a win. A better performance in the red zone against the Colts, and the game is not so close.
"We're continuing to move forward and right now we're going out there and putting drives together," said quarterback Charlie Batch. "However, we need to finish. We're putting up too many field goals on the board, and instead of keeping it close, we would like to widen the score. You have to be able to put touchdowns on the board."
It's still only the preseason, but that fact cuts both ways. It means there still is time for the offense to right itself in the red zone, but it also means their interception total has come in games that don't count in the standings.