(Last in a series)
Steelers President Art Rooney II identified it as the statistic that stood out to him in reflecting upon a 2012 season he termed "frustrating." General Manager Kevin Colbert saw it as the "deciding factor" in six of the team's eight losses that combined to keep them out of the playoffs.
In Rooney's assessment, the 2012 Steelers' turnover ratio of minus-10 (20 takeaways vs. 30 turnovers) was a killer, while Colbert refined that statistic to show how the point differential off the turnover ratio was equal to or more than the difference in the final score in six of the team's eight losses.
"Art mentioned the turnovers, but more specifically the points off turnovers was the deciding factor in six of our losses," said Colbert. "In six losses that differential was equal to or more than the difference in the final score."
The 2012 Steelers finished with 30 turnovers, a number skewed somewhat by the eight they committed on that one frightful afternoon in Cleveland, but where this team has been somewhat out of character of late comes in the number of takeaways it has been able to generate.
Dick LeBeau's second stint as defensive coordinator here began in 2004, and in the nine seasons that followed the Steelers have advanced as far as the AFC Championship Game four times. In those four seasons, they averaged 31.5 takeaways per season. In the other five seasons, they averaged 22.2.
And it seems to be trending downward. In their 80 NFL seasons, the Steelers have finished with 12 or fewer interceptions only nine times, but four of those nine have come since 2007, an era when passing has become a much more prominent part of offenses all over the league. The Steelers either are in a weird takeaway slump, or the players they have been drafting/signing share a weakness in that critical area.
"I think you can see guys who are productive in college, and if they are great interceptors or if they are great anticipators," said Colbert. "If they are around the ball in college, chances are they are going to be around it in the NFL. It's the same thing with pressure up front. If they are great pass rushers in college, chances are that should transfer to the NFL. If you put all that together, it should indicate the opportunity to be better interceptors and pressure guys."
Through most of the 2012 season, the Steelers' top four cornerbacks were Ike Taylor, Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown. Those four players combined for three of the team's 10 interceptions on the season, with Allen contributing two and Taylor getting the third. For their careers, Taylor – a 10-year veteran – has 14 interceptions, Allen has two in his two seasons, Lewis has one in his four seasons, and Brown has none in limited playing time on defense in two seasons.
"I wouldn't say underachieving," said Colbert about the cornerbacks' takeaway production. "Again, they are what they are, they are part of an 8-8 group. Are they great interceptors? I'd have to go back and look at their college stats for the guys in our secondary. I think they were OK in that area."
In 27 college starts at Texas, Brown had two interceptions; Allen had five in his 28 starts at The Citadel; Lewis had seven interceptions and 30 passes defensed in 48 starts at Oregon State; and Taylor had no interceptions in his one season on defense at Louisiana-Lafayette.
"If you look at the playoffs, teams that are on the negative side of the turnover ratio are not in the playoffs," said Rooney. "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."