Five for Friday: Return of Watt should help turnover ratio

If the Steelers are to turn things around in the second half of this season, winning the turnover battle would be a good place to start.

In their two wins this season – against six losses – the Steelers have not turned the ball over. In their six losses? They've turned it over 14 times.

And all too often in the first half of this season, the defense hasn't followed suit and forced turnovers of its own.

The Steelers forced five turnovers in their regular season opener at Cincinnati, a 23-20 overtime win. They've forced five turnovers in the seven games since, all of which came in three games.

Obviously, rookie quarterback Kenny Pickett has to be more careful with the football. He's thrown eight interceptions and lost a fumble – though certainly those aren't all his fault.

But the key is getting more turnovers from the defense.

The Steelers had just three games all of last season in which they failed to force a turnover. They've already had four such games this season.

Getting star outside linebacker and reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt back will help that.

Watt had five forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries last season while on his way to tying the NFL single-season record with 22.5 sacks.

With Watt in the lineup this season, the Steelers forced five turnovers and had seven sacks in the regular season opener. In the seven games they've played without him this season, they have eight sacks and five forced turnovers.

"I think anytime you have a great player, and the other team has to provide resources to protect from that player, it opens up some things for somebody else," Steelers defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. "And that's really what happens when you add T.J. to the mix; he's going to open things up."

Now, that's not to suggest that the turnovers and sacks the Steelers had in their win in the opener were all because of Watt. But the evidence is pretty significant that he's a big part of what they do. And opponents certainly have to be respectful of his presence on the field.

It's no coincidence the team is 52-24-1 in his career when he plays and 1-10 when he does not. He's that important to what they do, and, more importantly, how opponents approach playing them when he's out there.

"T.J. is who he is," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said. "It's not mystical, the things that he's able to do, and so I don't know that any of us are surprised with what he's capable of getting done. We eagerly await his return."

• Why is it important to finish this season strong?

Steelers history shows that a strong finish can lead to bigger things in the following season.

In 2013, the Steelers started 0-4 and then 2-6 before winning six of their final eight games to finish 8-8 and just miss making the playoffs. The following season, they went 11-5 and won the AFC North.

In 2000, coming off back-to-back losing seasons, not much was expected of the Steelers. And they started that season 0-3. They then won nine of their final 13 games to finish 9-7 and again just miss making the playoffs.

With their first two picks in the 2001 NFL Draft, they selected Casey Hampton and Kendrell Bell and went 13-3, securing the AFC's No. 1 seed in the playoffs.

This is a young football team, particularly on offense. It's a group that needs to learn how to win at the NFL level, starting with Pickett. Closing out NFL games is an art form. And because the Steelers had one of the best in NFL history to do it in Ben Roethlisberger for so long, it's something that fans might take for granted to a certain degree.

Pickett has that closer's mentality. He showed that in Miami in twice leading the Steelers into scoring range in the closing minutes of that game. But finishing those drives and games is the next step.

That's just one of the many reasons why the Steelers shouldn't just punt on this season and should continue to try to win as many games as possible.

Tomlin was asked at his press conference Tuesday what his team's focus is for the remainder of this season. Mind you, the Steelers have not been mathematically eliminated from anything at this point.

Tomlin's answer was what anyone who's followed this franchise for any amount of time might expect.

"We're singularly focused on this week's opportunity, which is to win this game," Tomlin said.

You can't worry about the big picture without first handling the day's business. And the day's business is and will continue to be the next week's game and figuring out a way to win that.• You never know what's going to happen over the course of a season. Remember that just last season, the Ravens were cruising along and leading the AFC North with an 8-3 record. And then Lamar Jackson got hurt and Baltimore didn't win another game.

There is ebb and flow to every NFL season. And things can change a lot based on injuries and other things.

At the time of Jackson's injury, the Ravens held a 3 1/2-game lead over the Steelers, who were 5-5-1. Six weeks later, the Steelers were 9-7-1 and the Ravens were 8-9.

Like the Steelers playing without Watt, the Ravens struggled playing without Jackson, their best player.

• Scoring remains down across the NFL at this point, with just one team, the Chiefs, averaging more than 30 points per game. Ten teams are scoring 20 or fewer points this season.

In 2020, five teams averaged 30 or more points per game, while just four averaged fewer than 20 points.

Why? More teams are playing Cover-2 or Cover-3 with deep shells and forcing throws underneath, while offensive line play as a whole across the league also has slipped.

It's not necessarily affected how much teams are throwing. In 2020, six teams averaged 270 or more passing yards per game, while six averaged 140 or more yards rushing. This season, it's five teams that have hit that passing mark and eight teams rushing for 140 or more yards.

What's happened is more teams are checking down than ever. In 2020, there were eight quarterbacks who averaged 6.5 yards per pass or less and 13 who were under 7.0 yards per attempt. This season, there are 11 quarterbacks averaging 6.5 yards per pass or less and 19 at 7.0 yards per attempt or less.

That leads to teams needing longer, more sustained drives to score points. And as we've seen with the Steelers this season, the more plays a team runs in a drive, the more opportunity there is for a penalty, sack or some other kind of negative play to kill the drive.

There's also been unprecedented quarterback movement across the league in recent years. Of quarterbacks taken in the first round of the NFL Draft before the 2019 season, just four -- Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen -- are still with the teams that selected him. That leads to a lot of quarterbacks learning new offenses.

It's something of an issue, to be sure.

• The Steelers have won their past five games coming off a bye week, a streak that dates back to 2017. The only other teams also unbeaten coming off their bye week since 2017 are the Bills and Titans.

But this week, Tomlin faces the one team he's not defeated as a head coach -- outside of the Steelers -- in the New Orleans Saints, against whom he is 0-3 in his career.

Two of those losses have been high-scoring, three-point affairs, as the Steelers lost 31-28 to the Saints in New Orleans in 2018 and 35-32 in Pittsburgh in 2014.

The Steelers' last win against the Saints? That came in 2006 in Bill Cowher's final season as the team's head coach.

The Steelers beat the Saints, 38-31, in Pittsburgh on Nov. 12, 2006, to improve to 3-6.

This game will be played on Nov. 13 and the Steelers, like that 2006 team, entered the game at 2-6 despite coming off a Super Bowl win the previous season.

That victory snapped a three-game losing streak and kick-started a second half that saw the Steelers go 6-2 to finish at 8-8.

Can history repeat itself? We'll see.

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