The majority of people were surely aware that the great success the Pittsburgh Steelers defense saw fairly consistently throughout the 2000s would not be something that was sustainable over time, but that harsh reality abruptly came to a head more or less in 2011, the year after the team’s most recently playoff victory.
The defense has been intermittently good in one category or another, but one area in which they had been woefully inadequate over the span of the previous four seasons had been the ability to produce splash plays—impactful plays that have the potential to swing momentum.
Sacks are obviously a big component in that area, and the Steelers have had a notable turnaround in that respect, as I highlighted yesterday. But even more important is the ability to take the ball away, a category in which the team has consistently ranked near the bottom over the past four seasons.
That has begun to change this year. Through 10 games, the Steelers have already recorded nine interceptions, which is the league-wide median number. But they have also forced 10 fumbles this year, and recovered nine fumbles, which ranks second only behind the Rams.
The Steelers’ 18 turnovers—including two special teams turnovers—is already three more than they had in 2011, and only two to three turnovers behind their totals for the previous three seasons, with a high of 21 set last year.
Currently, with six games to play, the Steelers would be on pace to record approximately 29 turnovers, which is certainly a healthy number, and an obvious improvement over the last several years, although it still does not quite live up to the legacy of their most recent dynasty era, where they came closer to averaging two takeaways per game.
Still, we are seeing obvious improvement and room to grow. In fact, the Steelers have recorded seven turnovers over the course of just the past two games, including two interceptions and five fumble recoveries. Admittedly, one fumble recovery was a gift on Sunday and another came on a bobbled end-of-game lateral, but five true turnovers in a two-game span is still very good.
A big part of this turnaround is a play who deserves a special mention, free safety Mike Mitchell, who was a key free agent signing last year and has really blossomed in his second season with the team.
Mitchell leads the team with three interceptions, two of which have come in the end zone, and he has also forced two fumbles, recovering another. He has been involved in some way in a full third of the team’s total takeaways in 2015, and that has certainly not been by coincidence—ignoring the near fumble recovery and touchdown that he would have had against the Raiders.
The defense may not be full of talent, but it is a unit that has bonded together and has shown resiliency in the face of adversity. While there has been some good fortune involved, the fact that they have only allowed 19.1 points per game has not been an accident, and they have the red zone turnovers to show for it.