Steelers Spring Interceptions Won’t Guarantee Regular Season Success

It’s better to hear about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense intercepting a ton of passes this spring than not hearing about it. I know that much. Just don’t assume that has to translate to when the games begin to matter. It definitely doesn’t.

Matthew Marczi made the point at the end of his article yesterday after Jordan Dangerfield’s note of all the interceptions the defense had this spring. It sounds like they picked off their fair share, including Joe Haden intercepting Ben Roethlisberger’s first pass of the OTA session.

But we’ve been fooled before.

In training camp last year, I marveled at how active and aggressive the defense was. In 15 Latrobe practices in 2018 they intercepted 20 passes. It was by far the most we’ve recorded since tracking in 2014. Here were the year-by-year numbers.

2014: 8
2015: 17
2016: 6
2017: 11
2018: 20

And it wasn’t just backups or players who wouldn’t make the roster who were coming away with so many turnovers. Artie Burns paced the group with five of them, tied for the most by any defender in camp since 2014 (Kevin Fogg, 2015). Morgan Burnett and Terrell Edmunds had a pair and all told, 15 of the 20 picks came from players who would make the Week One roster.

So there was reason for optimism heading into the season. Of course, that crashed and burned. Aside from a takeaway-fest against Tampa Bay in Week 3, the game where Ryan Fitzpatrick turned back into a pumpkin, the defense struggled to create splash. They ended last season with only eight interceptions, 28th in the league, and registered only 15 total turnovers.

Compare that to 2017, where in camp they intercepted only 11, but by the regular season, they intercepted 16 picks and finished above average league-wide in takeaways with 22.

Obviously, the success camp is nice but aided by being in a comfortable, low-pressure setting against a unit you know inside and out. The matchup you’re facing, the offense’s playbook and gameplan, the quarterbacks perhaps being more willing to take chances and the fact you’re facing third and fourth stringers, all aid in the defense taking away the football.

And to be fair, even if this defense doesn’t intercept many come camp, it doesn’t mean they will struggle there in the regular season. The number is a poor predictor on both ends.

I know I’m going all Buzz Killington here but the point is simple. The data available to use says the defense picking off passes now has no correlation to what happens starting in September.

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