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The Optimist’s Take: Sustainable Success With Turnovers

The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.

Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.

Question: Have the Steelers really turned the corner as a defensive unit able to turn the ball over, or was last season a fluke?

It’s no secret that the Steelers defense had experienced a rather unusual dry spell when it comes to turning the ball over ever since they lost the Super Bowl following the 2010 season. ever since then, for four seasons, their production in terms of producing interceptions and recovering fumbles had been going downhill, at times even sitting decades-long lows.

During the 2015 season, under their first season with former linebackers coach Keith Butler manning the sidelines as the defensive coordinator, we saw a significant upswing in turnovers, and for the first time in years the team finished with a positive turnover ratio of plus 2—not overly impressive, but perhaps a turning point, especially considering the offense turned the ball over more than they had in recent years.

More to the point, the Steelers defense intercepted 17 passes, their highest total since the 2010 season by a wide margin, and they were able to get contributions from all over the spectrum, with 12 different players counting for an interception, even a defensive lineman in the mix.

Importantly, 12 of those interceptions were produced by the secondary, with, with five of them coming from the safety position. Considering that they failed to produce an interception from the back line in all of 2014, that is certainly a positive change.

In addition to the 17 interceptions, the Steelers defense also recovered 13 fumbles, giving them 30 takeaways for the season. Overall, they finished tied for fourth in the league in fumble recoveries and tied for sixth in the league in interceptions.

It should be no surprise that we’ve seen this turnover transformation in the same season in which the Steelers have found some answers in the pass rush. In 2014, they had 33 sacks. That jumped up to 48 last season.

A lot of that has to do with the increased success of the interior pass rush, and the ability to put the quarterback in more vulnerable positions to throw the ball. With their two thoroughbred defensive ends, I wouldn’t bet on that changing.

Another positive development was the improved comfort level, health, and subsequently, performance of Mike Mitchell, who recorded three interceptions, forced two fumbles, and recovered two. His presence at the back end last year could serve as a turning point for sustained success as an opportunistic defense.

The greater variety of coverage disguises that we saw last year also helped to produce a few turnovers that I expect will continue, particularly when used in conjunction with an improved interior blitz courtesy of their stud inside linebackers. The case can easily be made that the Steelers are poised to continue to find success taking the ball away in 2016.

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