(The second in a series examining the 2012 season.)
In the process of describing the 2012 season as frustrating, Steelers President Art Rooney II pointed to the team's minus-10 turnover ratio as the one statistic that stood out in any evaluation of why it all ended with an 8-8 record and no spot in the playoffs.
"Not to oversimplify it, clearly one statistic that stands out as a problem was turnover ratio," said Rooney. "If you look at the playoffs, teams that are on the negative side of the turnover ratio are not in the playoffs. It's really as simple as that. That was an area on both sides of the football that we fell short of, and certainly something we can improve upon and something we need to improve upon."
Not only did the 2012 Steelers have problems generating takeaways, but only five teams – Buffalo, the New York Jets, Detroit, Kansas City, and Philadelphia – committed more than their 30 turnovers, and none of them made the playoffs. In fact, there were 16 teams that finished with a minus in turnover ratio for the entire season and only Denver, Minnesota and Indianapolis qualified for the playoffs. The Vikings and Colts were eliminated in the Wild Card Round.
"It's a lot of things," said Rooney when asked if he had an explanation for a minus-10 turnover ratio. "Focus is part of it. It's hard to say, because over the course of a season a lot of different things happen. We need to make sure we're on the plus side of it on both sides of the ball."
The Steelers' 30 turnovers can be viewed as skewed a bit by the meltdown in this area during the Nov. 25 loss to the Browns in Cleveland where they became the first NFL team since 2001 to turn the ball over eight times in one game. But what is more than a one-game anomaly is their takeaway total.
In 2011, the Steelers finished last in the NFL with 15 takeaways, 11 of which were interceptions. In 2012, they managed 20 takeaways, which was good for 25th in the NFL, with 10 interceptions.
The Steelers just completed their 80th season in the NFL, and only once has one of their teams finished with fewer than 10 interceptions. The 1940 Steelers posted the franchise low of nine interceptions, but that was in an 11-game season when their opponents combined for a grand total of 192 pass attempts. The 2012 Steelers got their 10 interceptions on 523 pass attempts by their opponents over a 16-game season. And by the way, those 11 interceptions in 2011 tied for third-lowest in franchise history with the 2007 and the 1939 squads.
"On the defensive side, the statistic that goes with (takeaways) the most is sacks and quarterback pressures, and we haven't been where we need to be on that front," said Rooney. "That's something we have to get better at – we need to get more pressure on the quarterback, because as everyone will tell you that creates turnovers."
The Steelers of recent vintage have been nothing like the units that spawned the "Blitzburgh" nickname almost 20 years ago, and as Rooney pointed out franchise history shows there is a direct correlation between the team's ability to rush the passer and its success in forcing turnovers.
In the 2008 regular season that ended with a win in Super Bowl XLIII, the Steelers posted 51 sacks and 29 takeaways, and in the 2010 regular season that ended with a loss in Super Bowl XLV, they had 48 sacks and 35 takeaways. But there were only 35 sacks and 15 takeaways in 2011, followed by 37 sacks and 20 takeaways this past season.
Some of the decline in both sacks and takeaways can be traced to injuries.
In the last two seasons, LaMarr Woodley has missed 10 complete games with injuries and his sack total over that span was 13. Over the three seasons previous to those, Woodley missed one complete game with an injury and his sack total over that span was 35.
In the three seasons spanning 2008-10, Woodley and James Harrison each posted double-digit sack seasons every year, but in 2011-12, they combined to miss a total of 18 games, 17 of those because of injury with the other due to a one-game suspension levied against Harrison. From 2008-10, Woodley and Harrison combined for 71.5 sacks in the 48 regular season games. In 2011-12, Woodley and Harrison combined for 28 sacks in the 32 games.
"I don't think you can sit here and say we had bad luck (with injuries)," said Rooney with regard to how health impacted the team's ability to rush the passer. "We have to be better. Some of the individual players need to be better at pressuring the passer and as a team we have to be better at pressuring the passer. And the defensive backs have to be more ball aware. I just don't think you can point to any one thing."
MONDAY: Rooney on the team's recent run of injuries