The Pittsburgh Steelers as a defense recorded 36 takeaways last season, and recorded 54 sacks. In conjunction with two takeaways provided by special teams, they led the NFL outright in both categories, the only team to have done that since sacks became an official statistic in 1982.
The question that they face this year, basically, is if they can do it again. With by and large the same personnel, head coach Mike Tomlin believes that they can. Guys like T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick and Cameron Heyward are all still here, and all presumably still in their prime, with only Heyward within that group getting to be an ‘older’ player.
“It’s our intentions to be as good as we can be, and it’s reasonable to expect us to improve in that area, and to improve in all areas”, Tomlin told reporters earlier this week during a conference call regarding the production of splash plays.
“We’ve got a young nucleus defensively, guys that have been here”, giving the example of Fitzpatrick as a young player he believes will only get better. “A lot has been said and written about the acquisition of Minkah and its impact, and for him to have an offseason and a preseason in the position that he’s in, a guy who plays in the middle of the field, largely, for us, I think is significant”.
Having the talent capable of producing splash plays is one thing, of course, and it’s another to condition that and coach that into your players. For his part, he believes that the Steelers do that, and have done that—even with the production of just 15 takeaways in 2018. Though they did lead in sacks.
“I think more than anything, it’s a cultural process for us”, he said. “It’s something that we try to bring to our daily work and in every drill that it is that we do. And that’s the ball awareness that allows us to produce the things that you mentioned and to come in great condition and to play with great physicality and hustle. So it’s a cultural thing for us. We respect the process of building it”.
Still, you can have all the talent and all the coaching in the world and sometimes that still doesn’t seem to make a difference, at least with respect to getting the results that you were hoping to get. “We’re going to be challenged in that area in the same way that everyone is”, Tomlin admitted.
“We’re going to work our tails off to produce the outcome that you mentioned”, he added, “because it’s a significant component of us playing great defense, as it is anyone. The ability to take the ball away and to spend a significant amount of time on the sideline defines dominant defense”.
Admittedly, the Steelers’ ability to produce a league-high ratio of takeaways per drive last season played a big part in why they also ranked among the best in terms of yards and point per drive allowed. They actually ranked only 16th in average time of possession per drive allowed, and their 5.7 plays per drive allowed was eighth. Fewer turnovers means longer drives, and more time on the field, so Tomlin knows it’s important to keep splashing.