The Pittsburgh Steelers have done nothing to hide the fact that they have been actively pursuing ways to improve their ability to take the ball away on defense, which is something that they failed to do with great efficiency last year for about the fourth straight season.
It’s become such a worrying trend, with not much in the way in terms of tangible reasons to believe that there is some type of obvious change coming, that the team has seemingly shaken up its strategies a bit during the course of this offseason, which obviously started with the 2015 NFL Draft.
There can be no doubt that the Steelers, for example, actively targeted defensive backs during the draft that not only were able to turn the ball over in numbers, but who displayed natural ballhawking abilities that they are banking on translating from the college level to the professional level.
Between second-round cornerback Senquez Golson’s 10 interceptions, the five contributed by fellow cornerback Doran Grant, selected in the fifth-round, and seventh-round safety Gerod Holliman’s record-tying 14 interceptions, the front office collected an additional 29 takeaways through these three players, which is a topic that they spoke to openly after the draft.
But the focus on encouraging turning the ball over has gone much deeper than that, according to Mike Prisuta, writing for the team’s website yesterday. He writes in an article that it was the plays that the defensive backs failed to make that were highlighted by their coaches after practice, despite the fact that they also managed to make several plays on their own.
Prisuta writes that “plays that are made on the field are graded on a curve”, which head coach Mike Tomlin providing a distinction for the defensive backs between what he calls a catch and what is actually an interception.
This, of course, coming from a former college wide receiver who (jokingly) claims to have never dropped a pass, who later came to find great success as the defensive backs coach of a Super Bowl-winning defense.
Starting free safety Mike Mitchell describes on practice in which he got his hands on three balls, only to have his coach tell him that “they weren’t interceptions, they were catches”, or simply passes that they should be expected to come down with.
This is feeding into a more aggressive mentality that we have seen little of in recent years. Only William Gay last season seemed to be coming away with the interceptions that Tomlin was looking for consistently, rather than simply catches, which is what distinguishes a playmaking secondary from one that is simply opportunistic in taking advantage of both forced and unforced errors.
Tomlin is looking to get both out of his secondary, and he has in his projected starting lineup three defensive backs who have in the past shown the ability to take the ball away. Mitchell, for example, had four interceptions and two forced fumbles in 2013. Gay has a trio of pick-sixes last year, and had five takeaways for the Cardinals in 2012. Cortez Allen also had five in 2012.