LATROBE, Pa. – Later today it begins in earnest, the process of putting together the 2016 Pittsburgh Steelers, and the foundation of it all will be the product of the time spent here at Saint Vincent College. It's an interesting situation, an NFL training camp is, because what really must be found is the delicate balance between staging a series of physical and competitive practices while preserving the players' bodies for the real grind that is the 17-week regular season.
It's not difficult to identify areas other than health that will be worth watching over the next month, and there are bound to be afternoons when one unit has its way with another. Such is the nature of the training camp process, and those battles will be part of who these Steelers become as they approach that opening Monday night at FedEx Field. To that end, there's one area of the defense of special interest as the Steelers continue to remake the unit.
It's no coincidence that in the months immediately following a 2015 season in which the Steelers ranked 30th in the NFL against the pass there was an emphasis on upgrading the defensive backfield. First and second-round picks were spent on cornerback Artie Burns and safety Sean Davis; Cortez Allen, Brandon Boykin, and Antwon Blake are gone; and Robert Golden and Will Gay were re-signed.
Those are the particular personnel moves involving the secondary, and if the sum total ends up being an increase in takeaways, particularly interceptions, then the Steelers upcoming season is going to have a real chance to be be a special one. Maybe one of the seven most special ones in franchise history.
As not-good-enough as the Steelers pass defense was last season, it produced 17 interceptions, not a league-leading total by any means but a relative bounty when viewed in the light of recent team history. There have been 11 times in franchise history, which currently numbers 83 seasons, when the Steelers defense finished a season with fewer than 13 interceptions, and five of them came in the six that spanned 2009-14.
The Steelers begin every training camp with the idea they are putting together a team to compete for a championship, but it's fair to acknowledge there are some Augusts when that's more possible than others. This particular August seems to be one where there can be legitimate hope, particularly if the defense can continue to develop the ability to generate the timely sacks and takeaways capable of mitigating previous yardage gained. If the opponent gains 60 yards of offense before the defense takes the ball away or knocks said opponent out of scoring range, those yardage statistics accumulated will count against the defense in the league statistics but not against the team in that game.
In the four seasons (2011-14) between the Steelers' most recent Super Bowl appearance and Keith Butler's rookie year as the defensive coordinator, the team never finished a season with more than 11 interceptions or 37 sacks. In 2015, those numbers were 17 interceptions and 47 sacks.
Steelers' players arrive at training camp.
Not bad. Could be better. Especially the interception total.
Over the previous two drafts, the Steelers have spent five of their 15 picks on defensive backs, and there has been an obvious interest in prospects with some verifiable history of getting their hands on the football during games, and sometimes even catching it.
Artie Burns and Sean Davis come to their rookie NFL camp having a combined 12 interceptions during their college careers, with Burns' seven helped by 14 passes defensed and Davis' five as a safety helped by the seven fumbles he also forced. Left from the three defensive backs picked in 2015 are Senquez Golson and his 16 career interceptions at Mississippi and Doran Grant with his nine at Ohio State.
Last September, when answering a question about evaluating defensive backs, Bill Belichick said, "I think it's a combination of physical skills, speed, quickness, instincts, just awareness or instincts – however you want to call it – and then there are ball skills. They're all important. Being able to run fast or move quickly in a short area is certainly paramount to getting to the ball. Sometimes instinctively you can kind of get a jump on the play just because of the combination of the route or the way the quarterback is looking or the way the receiver maybe is giving away the route, the way he runs it you're able to anticipate it. But then there is the final part of it, which is of course the ball skills and playing the ball."
Not to be ignored in this formula for championship-contending-caliber pass defense is the complementary pressure on the quarterback to force potentially errant or careless throws, and also the consistency of the team's own offense to score enough points to keep the opponent from being able to go into a protective shell.
Even without suspended wide receiver Martavis Bryant and Le'Veon Bell's appeal of what might end up being a four-game suspension, the offense should be able to hold up its end. As for the pass rush, despite what seems to be a general impression that the Steelers' is woefully inadequate, the team actualy was fifth in the NFL last season in sack percentage, a number representing the percentage of sacks per opposing quarterbacks' drop-backs. The Steelers' sack percentage was 7 percent, and the Denver Broncos led the league at 8.1 percent. New England, Houston, and Detroit were in a three-way tie for second at 7.3 percent.
As long as the pass rush continues to be representative moving forward, the increase in interceptions will depend upon these existing players, particularly the young ones, making plays after the ball is in the air. It's not an easy task, nor is it something that can be drilled into someone through repetition. It has to be an existing skill that's honed.
"There are a lot of times when defenders are close to the receiver, they're close to the ball, and the receiver ends up with it," said Belichick, "and they either misjudge it or aren't able to get to the reception area with their hand in order to break it up. Being close to the receiver is good, but being able to have the ball skills, the timing to reach and touch the ball at the right time in order to break it up is important. And obviously the final thing would be hands in terms of intercepting the ball. It's almost another skill. Breaking up passes is one thing. Actually intercepting them is another."
Actually intercepting them, and at a rate that bests the 17 they totaled last season, could turn out to be the fulcrum of this upcoming season for these Steelers. They have spent some premium draft picks in the recent past both to bolster their secondary and add speed and athleticism to other areas of their defense, and having that labor bear fruit over the next several months has the potential to erase a lot of mistakes and compensate for weaknesses in other areas of their game over the course of a regular season.
The 2009 New Orleans Saints finished No. 25 in total defense, No. 21 against the run, No. 26 against the pass, and No. 20 in points allowed per game. But they were No. 2 in takeaways with 39, and within that total they were No. 3 in interceptions with 26, and then they clinched Super Bowl XLIV with a 74-yard pick-six in what turned out to be a 31-17 victory over Peyton Manning's Indianapolis Colts.
The formula worked for the Saints. It's one that could work just as well for the 2016 Steelers.