While it should be pointed out that some of the turnovers that the defense has produced this season have been the product of the ability to take advantage of mechanical errors such as botched exchanges, there is no mistaking that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 12 takeaways in the first five weeks of the 2019 season clearly display an improvement over last year in terms of their ability to produce splash plays.
The problem is that the offense has had great difficulty capitalizing on those splashes, even when given the ball inside of field goal range, as that is often as far as they have gotten. In something like four or five drives begun in opponent territory due to a takeaway, the Steelers have only recorded one touchdown.
That has the defense changing their mindset. As Bud Dupree told Ray Fittipaldo earlier this week following a three-interception showing against the Baltimore Ravens, “hopefully in the long run we’ll see some of those translated into points”. In other words, the defense needs to start getting in the end zone when they have the ball in their hands.
“When we get the ball out, we actually have to run with it, get some blocks and make some real splash plays”, the veteran linebacker said. “We’re getting the ball. Now we have to turn those into splash plays so we can score”.
The Steelers most famous defensive score would have to be the 100-plus-yard interception return by James Harrison at the end of the first half in Super Bowl XLIII, when he picked off Kurt Warner of the Arizona Cardinals at the goal line and sprinted the distance of the field. He had a caravan of defenders blocking for him down the field, something this current unit a decade later wants to do a better job of.
In the meantime, of course, the offensive side of the ball is appreciative of any field position they can gain via the turnovers the defense has produced—better than two per game so far—and understands that it’s on them to do a better job of finishing those drives by putting the ball in the end zone.
With six interceptions and six fumble recoveries—rookie first-round pick Devin Bush has one and three all on his own, respectively—this group has done a nice job of both creating and taking advantage of their opportunities, but it hasn’t been an accident. It’s been work.
“In 11-on-11, we’re going for the ball instead of the tackle”, Dupree said. “We don’t have pads on during the season. Everyone knows you can tackle, so when you wrap, just go for the ball. We did drills in camp where the first guy was the runner and the second guy was the puncher. We emphasized punching that ball out, getting the strip sack”.
Add to that the mandatory work on the Jugs machine. This unit is better-equipped to produce splashes than they were a year ago, both in personnel and practice habits. That much is for certain. Now the next step is creating bigger splashes.