Turnovers, Takeaways, and the Steelers 2015 Draft

via WTAE

by Rebecca Rollett

Back in 2012 I read the following comment in an article by John Dudley of the Erie Times-News: 

Through six weeks [of the 2012 season] the Steelers rank dead last in the league in takeaway-giveaway ratio at minus-10. The offense has turned the ball over 12 times and the defense has forced only two turnovers, one interception and one fumble. They have ranked lower than 24th in turnover ratio only once in franchise history, when they finished 27th in 2006.

This seemingly innocuous quote inspired a ridiculously long series of articles, bristling with statistics and game recaps. It did not, however, result in the Steelers improving in this category.

By 2013 this was old news. The Steelers just weren’t taking the ball away nearly enough. Part of the problem was perhaps that the bar was set way too high in 2010. The Super Bowl team had a +17 ratio of takeaways to turnovers, which was the highest by far in the past 10 seasons, and good for No. 2 in the league.

I thought it would be interesting to revisit this issue in light of some of the guys the Steelers drafted in 2015. But I also thought it might be instructive to compare what was happening with the Steelers with the rest of the league. First, though, let’s look at the Steelers from 2005—2014.

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 1.27.25 AM

The blue line is total sacks in the regular season. (Because I’m going to compare these figures to the rest of the league I stuck with the regular season only.) The green is total interceptions, the purple is forced fumbles (whether or not they were recovered,) and the yellow is the difference between turnovers and takeaways.

It is interesting, although hardly surprising, to see how, generally speaking, interceptions track the sacks. There are a couple of trends in here. The first is, of course, a general trend downwards in sacks since a high in 2008. The overall interception numbers have been on the decline since Troy Polamalu became oft-injured and otherwise mortal, from about 2011 on. But despite this, the differential has been trending up since the nadir in 2011, and this is mostly due to the offense becoming a bit less inclined to give it away.

Let’s see how this compares to the rest of the league:

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 1.31.26 AM

The fascinating thing to me is the league average. There was an incredibly small amount of difference between the averages over that time. (I couldn’t find all of the figures needed to get the average for 2005, which is why it starts at 2006.) The highest it ever made it was just under -6, the lowest was 9.5. So you could view the Steelers’ margin of 0 last season as pretty good, actually, being as the average was -6.

Only twice during this time did the Steelers dip below the league average—2012 was pretty much a wash. In the meantime it is interesting to note the trend over the past few years in which the best score in the league each year is declining and the worst is improving.

I don’t have any evidence for this, and it’s a rather small sample size, but if I had to hazard a guess I would say it has something to do with the league emphasis on head injuries and the new rules and/or enforcement about how and where you can tackle. We’ll see if those trends continue in the next few years.

The other interesting point, which you can’t tell from the chart, is who were the best and worst teams over this time period. Two teams repeated as the best teams—the New England Patriots in 2010 and 2012, and the Green Bay Packers in 2009 and 2014. The only team to repeat as worst was the Oakland Raiders, in 2006 and 2014. The Baltimore Ravens were the best in 2006 and the worst in 2007. That amuses me for some reason…

Does any of this matter? Well, it seems to matter a great deal to Mike Tomlin. Everyone assumed the Steelers would address the situation at defensive back in this draft. While the retirements of Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu were none too soon, there wasn’t much in the cupboard behind them.

So no one was surprised when the Steelers took three defensive backs. The bigger surprise was perhaps which ones. And there is definitely a common thread among the three backs taken—an extraordinarily high number of interceptions made by them in college.

Gerod Holliman, the 7th round pick, had 14 of them last year—3 more than the entire Steelers defense put together. As Ed Bouchette reported

“To get that many interceptions, you have to have instincts,” [secondary coach Carnell ] Lake said. “He has a real savvy and knack for the game and it shows.

“I think he’s going to develop and going to be one of the smarter guys because he doesn’t have blazing speed or other traits you look for, but from the neck up he’s got a lot of talent. And because of it, he’s able to make plays just as he did in college.”

The Steelers didn’t stop there, though. The 3rd round pick, Senquez Golson, had almost one interception per game, with 10 total, and gained 162 yards after catching them. Fourth-round pick Doran Grant, with his five interceptions in 2014, seems unimpressive, until you ponder that is still almost half as many as the Steelers managed last season, as a team. (And at least one of those wasn’t by a defensive back—I believe it was Lawrence Timmons who hauled one in.)

It seems pretty clear Mike Tomlin is tired of the lack of “splash plays.” So when the opportunity came to pick up a free agent defensive back, the Steelers didn’t waste any time signing Brandon Boykin when he was cut by the Eagles. Not too surprisingly, he had a lot of interceptions. Six in the 2013 season (although that’s an outlier, so far.) Lest we forget, the Steelers as a team had 10 interceptions in 2013.

At last Friday’s practice Boykin jumped a route a seven-on-seven drill, intercepting Landry Jones for a “pick-six.” Mike Tomlin is reported to have rushed over to Boykin, saying, “Welcome to Pittsburgh!” as he shook his hand. Boykin then presented Tomlin the “game ball” and Tomlin raised his fist with great enthusiasm. So Boykin appears to be a hit so far.

There’s no guarantee any of these guys is going to pan out, although Boykin has already been a success in the NFL, despite his lack of height. (Being on the short side is the other defining trait for this class of DBs.) But it certainly seems like a good place to start. There’s no better way to shorten the game for the defense and get the ball back into the hands of the electric trio of playmakers the Steelers have on offense. And I would say if they can do that on a regular basis, the Steelers are going to win a lot of games this year.


  • While the new CBs and Safeties will excite the fan base early if they force turnovers, the play of the D-line will determine whether it matters in the end.


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