Eighteen months ago, I did a study that showed a correlation between teams winning the Super Bowl and defenses who record at least 25 takeaways in a season. We’ve reduced that number to 23 (like everything else, Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs are breaking the mold) but the point remains the same. The best teams are the ones who take the football away. In an era where offenses are more effective than ever, they scored a record amount of points this season, the best defensive counter is to steal the ball, steal a possession.
It’s no surprise to see the Pittsburgh Steelers have a strong correlation between takeaways and win/loss. There’s a clear difference in result when they take the ball away and when they don’t. The numbers from 2020, including the playoffs.
Steelers’ Record When The Defense Records At Least One Takeaway
Steelers’ Record When The Defense Doesn’t Record A Takeaway
A pretty remarkable contrast. 11-1 when they take it away, 1-5 when they don’t. Doesn’t matter about turnover differential or any other stat. Making one splash play a game makes a world of difference.
The only exceptions to each category? Pittsburgh didn’t force a turnover in their Week 7 win against Tennessee. And the defense had two takeaways in their Week 14 loss to Buffalo.
Even if you want to extend things back to a Roethlisberger-less 2019 season, the Steelers are 19-7 when they take the ball away at least once. They’re 1-7 when they don’t.
These stats shouldn’t shock anyone. Maybe to the extent of how predictable things were (record a takeaway, they win; fail to do so, lose) but turnovers and winning are a predictable correlation. That’s been the biggest transformation of the Steelers’ defense the last two seasons. The pass rush hasn’t dramatically changed. In 2017 and 2018, they were a league-leading, 50+ sack group. But the defense still stunk because the secondary was poor and they couldn’t translate that pressure into turnovers.
Once the secondary improved and the team focused more on turnovers, they became a top-five unit. Personnel had a lot to do with that. Signing Steven Nelson. Trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick. So did coaching. Bringing in Teryl Austin brought a greater emphasis on turnovers. I was reminded on that reading through one of the first articles I wrote on him. When he was a defensive coordinator, Austin said one of the top numbers he kept an eye on was turnovers. His yearly goal was to finish top five in turnover ratio. In 2020, the Steelers finished tied for third.
The sour note the Steelers’ season ended on makes it tough to appreciate what the defense did throughout the regular season. Plainly put, they collapsed in the Wild Card loss, even understanding the bind Pittsburgh’s offense put them in. But it’s no surprise to see they lost that game either. The defense failed to create a splash play. One well-timed turnover in that game, even if they had still ended the game -3 or -4, could have propelled Pittsburgh to complete the comeback.
So if you can’t watch a Steelers’ game next season, just find out how many turnovers the defense had. That’s as good a predictor as any.