Over the course of the past couple of years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have undergone an uncommon amount of change, which could have been largely correlated with the fact that the team had finished 8-8 in consecutive seasons while failing to advance to the postseason.
In deference to general manager Kevin Colbert, the attitude used to approach the offseason in those years was that this was an 8-8 team and these were 8-8 players. It’s little surprise that a lot of things changed during those years.
One element that the Steelers have actively sought to change on the defensive side of the ball has been to improve their chances of creating turnovers through personnel and, perhaps, schematic decisions as well.
Part of that may have been allowing some veterans to ride out into the sunset, including Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu. Taylor was never much of a producer when it comes to turnovers, but he hadn’t recorded an interception since 2012. And while Polamalu produced a good deal of turnovers as recently as 2013, his last season was almost barren, with just one forced fumble as the quarterback was being sacked by a teammate, which the offense recovered.
Of course, the Steelers also let Brice McCain walk in free agency, who finished the season with three interceptions, including a pick six. Two of McCain’s interceptions came in the season finale with a minor degree of difficulty, however.
One theory might be that they chose the potential of Antwon Blake, including his ability to produce turnovers, over McCain, whose production came from a higher number of snaps. He has some ball skills, and his hard-hitting mentality is more conducive to separating man from ball.
Blake recorded one interception, which came in the end zone during a close game, as well as forcing a fumble late in the season finale, which was a pivotal moment in the game that gave the team their first division title since 2010.
Early in the offseason, they also brought in a guy who had produced eight forced fumbles in the CFL the year before in Shawn Lemon, even if he has an outside shot of making the roster following the draft moves that they made.
Speaking of the draft, they selected three defensive backs who all had at least five interceptions last year; two of them had double-digit picks. Schematically, there also seems to be an inclination to help their star players get to the quarterback more easily, which tends to lead to more turnovers.
In spite of the Steelers’ splash play numbers in terms of sacks, fumbles, and interceptions remaining low last season, they were able to achieve success, going 11-5 and winning the AFC North.
That showed significant strides had been made, but the coaching staff sees that the key to the next step is to improve the defense, and the quickest way to do that, while simultaneously helping your offense with good field position, is to become more opportunistic. It’s a cosmetic partial fix as the defense continues to improve and becomes stouter as a unit.