The Steelers defense continues to improve as the 2018 season progresses. The unit ranks among the NFL's top 10 units in total yards per game, total yards passing, rushing yards per game, passing yards per game, average gain per pass attempt, and third-down efficiency. The Steelers defense is tied-for-11th in points per game, and the unit leads the league in sacks with 39.
There is, however, a glaring hole in this resume, and the hole is in a significant category. They're tied-for-22nd in takeaways.
Through 11 games this season, the Steelers have six interceptions (tied-for-24th) and six fumble recoveries (tied-for-10th). That would put them on pace for 17.5 takeaways this season, and there already are 10 teams with more than 17.5 takeaways right now.
"If you look back at the last eight quarters of football for us, it's something that as a football team we have to tighten up and tighten up rather quickly," Coach Mike Tomlin said today during his weekly news conference at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "We've turned the ball over some on offense, and we have to do a better job of safeguarding and preserving it in everything we do, whether it's running or passing. And on the defensive side of the ball, except for the last snap in Jacksonville, we've played eight quarters of football without creating a turnover. And I don't think you can have one discussion without the other. Turning the ball over is less of an issue if you're getting it. Not getting turnovers is less of an issue if you're preserving and taking care of it, so we've got issues in both areas and it has created issues for us globally."
The Steelers have had a couple of games this season where turnovers have been a problem. Six turnovers in the opener vs. the Browns contributed heavily to the Steelers having to leave Cleveland with a tie; two turnovers vs. the Ravens at Heinz Field contributed to that defeat; and the four turnovers against the Broncos, including two in the Denver end zone, unquestionably were a factor in that 24-17 loss. But in the other eight games, in which the Steelers are 7-1, they turned the ball over a combined seven times.
But with the exception of the victory over Tampa Bay, in which they had four takeaways, and the blowout win vs. Carolina, in which they had two takeaways, the Steelers have six takeaways combined in their other nine games.
"We have some work to do in that area," said Tomlin about taking the ball away. "It's very fundamental. We always work in that area, but it's a re-centering, if you will, a point of emphasis. And we'll continue along those lines until we get the desired result. And we better get the desired result very quickly, because of the significant challenge we have coming before us (in the San Diego Chargers)."
Put it all together, the turnovers and the takeaways, and the NFL computes the statistic and calls it, turnover ratio. In the statistics world, turnover ratio isn't as significant won-loss record, but many in the football business believe turnover ratio has the most direct impact on a team's won-loss record.
The Steelers currently are at a minus-7 in turnover ratio, and the only teams worse than that are Philadelphia, the New York Jets, Arizona, Jacksonville, San Francisco, and Tampa Bay. Among those six teams below the Steelers in turnover ration, none of them have a winning record.
"We as a football team, if there is one area where we're lacking in terms of development is that turnover ratio," said Tomlin. "I think we're at the bottom part of the league, and it's twofold – we have to do a better job of taking care of it and we have to do a better job of seizing it and getting it, particularly with some of the duress we've been able to create defensively. We've created a lot of sacks and so forth, and just by virtue of those statistics it should be the type of helter-skelter necessary to create turnovers, and it just hasn't happened for us."
It hasn't happened, but Tomlin said it's something that's a regular part of meetings and practices.
"It starts with just simply ball awareness," said Tomlin. "We teach that and talk about that probably more than anything. Being aware of where the ball is located, who's holding it, how they're holding it, and what they're trying to do with it, and how all of that relates to your assignment. That's just a general Football 101 description of ball awareness, but I think anytime you're talking about getting the football from a defensive perspective it's starts there. Everyone can relate to that. A defensive lineman can relate to that relative to his pass rush. A defensive back can relate to that relative to covering people and attempting to break up potential completions. Everyone can think about and talk about how ball awareness relates to the specific task they have to do within any particular defensive call."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"On the injury front, Vance McDonald has a hip (injury) that will limit him in the early portion of the week. We'll let his participation be our guide. Xavier Grimble is in the concussion protocol. Bud Dupree has a pectoral injury where his participation will be our guide in terms of his availability. Some other bumps and bruises. We anticipate Stephon Tuitt (elbow) working (Wednesday), at least in some capacity and letting that be our guide in terms of his march back (to playing), and the same with Marcus Gilbert (knee)."