DENVER – The first half of the equation cost them a game here yesterday. The second half of the equation is holding them back as a football team.
There is a reason turnovers and takeaways are linked, and why the critical statistic is referred to as turnover ratio. Viewed in a vacuum, giving the football away is a recipe for disaster and taking the football away is a reflection of one team’s superiority on any given Sunday. But in reality, neither of those elements are mutually exclusive, and so the most accurate measure of the impact comes down to the ratio of giveaways vs. takeaways.
The impact of giving the ball away can be mitigated by taking the ball away, just as the impact of taking the ball away can be blunted by giving it away. Unfortunately for the 2018 Steelers, they’ve been involving themselves only halfway in this aspect of the sport, and if that doesn’t change their season is most assuredly going to end before they want it to.
Let’s begin with yesterday’s game against a Broncos team that was in desperation mode. Coming in with a 4-6 record and inhabitants of the same division as Kansas City and the Los Angeles Chargers, the Broncos for all intents and purposes were in playoff mode starting last week. They were in playoff mode starting last week because their reality is they cannot afford to lose any more games if they hope to make the real playoffs, because in the AFC seven losses this season has a much better chance of winning a division than it does qualifying as a Wild Card. And being in the AFC West with Kansas City and the Chargers, Denver has no realistic chance at a division title.
The Steelers turned the ball over four times, and worse than that was their minus-4 turnover ratio, and worst of all was the way their turnovers impacted the scoreboard. Most often, turnovers impact the scoreboard when they end up in the end zone after a return, but the Steelers turnovers impacted the scoreboard by preventing them from scoring points that were right there for the taking.
The Broncos won, 24-17, and the Steelers lost a fumble at the Denver 1-yard line that rolled out of bounds in the end zone for a touchback; they had the ball at the Denver 2-yard line on a play that ended with an interception in the end zone; and they lost a fumble at the Denver 23-yard line at the end of a pass play that had gained 23 yards. It’s not unreasonable to expect a minimum of 17 points from that collection of field position, but the Steelers got nothing, and so they lost.
After it was over, Coach Mike Tomlin chose to credit the Broncos for the success they had in taking the ball away, but there also was an element of self-infliction in some of those plays that cannot be denied.
We begin with Xavier Grimble rumbling through the Broncos secondary after catching a pass in the wide open spaces from Ben Roethlisberger on the first play of the second quarter. It was a third-and-1 from the Denver 24-yard line and certainly looked as though it was going to erase the Steelers’ 3-0 deficit. Grimble encountered no resistance as he rumbled toward the pylon at the goal line, but it soon became apparent Denver safety Will Parks’ path was going to lead to a collision at the goal line.
With Parks sprinting over from the middle of the field in a desperate attempt to get there in time, Grimble looked to be able to use the defender’s momentum against him and sidestep his way across the goal line for the go-ahead touchdown. Instead he chose the macho approach and it backfired because on impact Grimble lost the ball and it crossed the goal line and went out of bounds for a touchback. In a situation where the points were paramount, Grimble made a poor decision in trying to deliver a punishing message on the way to crossing the goal line, where in reality the most effective message would have been to put his team in the lead.
The dagger was the interception in the end zone on a third-and-goal from the Broncos 2-yard line with 67 seconds remaining. The Steelers had been having problems with nose tackle Shelby Harris all afternoon, but on this play they dominated him physically. Maurkice Pouncey drove Harris off the line of scrimmage but that served to put him in the throwing lane as Ben Roethlisberger was trying to get the ball to Antonio Brown as he was slanting over the middle. When the ball came to him, Harris caught it, and the game was over.
Play selection can, and should be, scrutinized, not only in that situation but over the course of a game where the Steelers attempted 14 running plays and 62 passes, a number that included gadget plays and a couple of Roethlisberger scrambles from the pocket. Not a good ratio whatsoever, even taking into account that Roethlisberger completed 73.2 percent for 462 yards.
That can be rectified, and it likely will, as it already has during portions of this season. But yesterday the Steelers found themselves in a game where throwing the ball against this Broncos defense was easy, even with a rookie starting at right tackle. Chuks Okorafor and Al Villanueva allowed Bradley Chubb and Von Miller to combine for just one-half sack and no other pressures all afternoon. The offense moved the ball up and down the field, to the tune of 25 first downs and 527 total net yards, and the Steelers finished with a 10 minute edge in time of possession as well.
But there were those four turnovers, three of them deep in scoring territory, and again the Steelers did nothing to mitigate their giveaways with takeaways. There were some tipped balls in the secondary that floated harmlessly to the grass, and it’s disappointing to say the least that the team coming into the game leading the NFL in sacks with 37 has but nine forced fumbles and six recoveries. Sack/strip anyone?
“We have to get more turnovers on defense,” said Joe Haden. “The other team keeps winning the turnover battle, so we want to protect the ball a little better. At the same time, on defense we have to be able to get the ball out. We have to be able to create some turnovers. Some picks and some forced fumbles. We have to do better in creating turnovers.”
They can even out their run-pass ratio. They can do a better job of protecting the football. They can do those things because they have shown they can do those things. But if the Steelers cannot develop some ability to create takeaways, it won’t matter whether they fix those other two issues or not, because teams that are minus-7 in turnover ratio rarely make it very deep into January.