A Blast from the Past: Another Question We Were Debating Back in the Day

AP photo/Don Wright

We’ve made it all the way to October 18th of 2011. The Steelers had played the Jaguars the previous Sunday, and beaten them. But no one in Steeler Nation seemed terribly excited by this fact.

As Hombre de Acero said:

The Steelers win over the Jaguars may have been lackluster. It might have missed the intensity of previous match ups with the Big Cats. But it certainly provided plenty of fodder for this weeks 5 Burning Questions.

So what questions did it raise? Angst over the passing game, for one. After the previous week’s 5 passing touchdowns against the Tennessee Titans, a 17-13 win over a not-very-impressive Jaguars team, featuring a total of 70 yards of offense in the second half, will create some angst.

This game represented the fifth loss in a row for Jacksonville, the longest such streak in the previous ten years. Things didn’t really improve much either for the Jaguars, although they did beat the Ravens the following week. Head Coach Jack Del Rio would be fired several weeks later. In the end they only won five games all season, two under interim coach Mel Tucker.

However, the Steelers defense did manage to hold Maurice Jones-Drew to under his 100.4 yard season average, just—he had 96 yards on the ground with no touchdowns. 2011 would ultimately prove to be the best season of Jones-Drew’s career, despite the sorry nature of the rest of the offense. Only twice in the season did they even reach 20 points—once in a loss to the Bengals, and once in a bizarre win over Tampa Bay in which they scored 41 points, with four of the touchdowns coming from Jones-Drew.

But to return to the 2011 Steelers, other questions involved LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, Young Money, and Steelers West. The question I chose for this column, though, was this:

3. The Steelers have protected the ball better in their four wins, but nonetheless have been chronically unable to produce turnovers. Why?

The 2010 Steelers produced 35 takeaways, good for No. 3 in the league, behind the Giants and New England. With the 100% accuracy of hindsight we know the Steelers tanked in 2011, in this category, at least, and did not improve much between 2011 and 2015. Here are the actual figures:

  • 2011: 15 (No. 32)
  • 2012: 20 (No. 29)
  • 2013: 20 (No. 27)
  • 2014: 21 (No. 23)
  • 2015: 30 (No. 4)

Note this isn’t the turnover/takeaway ratio, just defensive turnovers. You can also find the ratio and a lot of other handy stuff going back to 2009 in a sortable chart at this site.

But what were the theories put forth back in 2011 by the commenters? Here are some of them:

by SNW:

3. Troy has been close to a few, nobody else stepping up much for the big play

LaMarr56 said:

3. Bad luck and teams playing smarter. I think teams are avoiding Polamalu and Ike (even though he can’t catch). Plus we haven’t had a fumble bounce our way at all. We’ve forced a few but just can’t get them.

Mike Frazer had a similar take:

3) Sometimes you get the bounces, sometimes you don’t. Troy has had about a zillion balls hit him in juuuuuust the right way so as to make them uncatchable (he has, admittedly, dropped his share too). Clark and Taylor tried to INT the same ball on the Hail Mary. And guys have been out of position, so they have to do more just to get the tackle. If they continue to round out their fundamentals, as they have been the last few weeks, then they will have more chances to go for the ball instead of barely making a tackle.

barnburner took a different tack:

3. Our defense has been “going back to the fundamentals”, which involves a rededication to sound technique (covering, gap control, tackling). Maybe it’s just the way I hear it, but when most coaches/players say something about fundamentals, they’re not really saying that they’re going to make forcing turnovers a priority. Forcing turnovers sometimes requires a degree of gambling on a play – going for the strip instead of making a safe tackle/going for the pick instead of going for the safer play to bat the ball away – which is not part of the teaching of fundamentals. Sound fundamentals usually prefer forcing a punt to get the ball back.

Some turnovers might still come – maybe good pressure by the boys up front will force a real duck of a throw and an easy interception, but I didn’t think the turnovers were going to start coming in bunches again until after the defense had graduated one more time from the LeBeau school of fundamentals.

Hopefully that’ll be soon, and we can see the fast and loose Steelers defense return to proper form.

tannofsteel84 articulated something I’ve heard a lot in the past few years:

3. Turnovers are random. I think I remember Lebeau saying he doesn’t worry about turnovers, they will come. I’m not worried about it, we just need to stop turning the ball over and we’ll be fine.

barnburner’s comment set me to wondering if this is the opposite side of the tackling coin. In other words, is the inconsistent tackling so many were upset about in 2015 an artifact of focusing on getting “splash plays,” as Mike Tomlin would say? After all, you can only really focus on so many things.

I know it was a point of emphasis this past season, and it would seem it was effective as well—an almost 50% increase in takeaways was surely not all attributable to luck. Perhaps an interesting question to ask, and one which I may write more upon when I have more time, is whether there are games the Steelers lost in 2015 largely as a result of poor tackling, and how they balance out the games the Steelers won largely as a result of timely takeaways.

There is no doubt there is an element of randomness in takeaways. After all, as Tunch Ilkin loves to point out, a football is not round. And several of the commenters from the 2011 article noted that during the Jaguars game Ziggy Hood had a ball hit him right in the chest which he dropped, and which would have almost certainly been a touchdown.

But even in this instance, perhaps a stronger coaching emphasis on takeaways would have had Hood more prepared to watch for and take advantage of a ball that hit him right in the chest. Admittedly there were a few of those this past season that were dropped as well. Still, it’s worth considering.

Back in 2011, when the Steelers still thought they had a dominant pair of OLBs in James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, Dick LeBeau could count on getting pressure which would, he believed, produce turnovers in due time.

As 2011 played out, he really didn’t have the pair of dominant OLBs he was counting on. James Harrison missed four weeks after the freak orbital bone break, and LaMarr Woodley only played in ten games as a result of a hamstring injury. It would be Woodley’s first year other than his rookie season (2007) without double digit sacks (he had nine) and the last in which he would have more than five.

Harrison also had nine sacks. This was also the first time since 2007 he didn’t have double digit sacks, and the last time he would get that close to doing so. Unlike Woodley, though, he has stayed productive, and other than the misguided year in Cincinnati has had at least five every season.

The 2015 Steelers clearly didn’t have a dominant pair of OLBs, either. Nor, looking at the roster during the early days of the preceding offseason, did it look particularly likely they would. Nor was he likely to have a double-team attracting, hole-plugging nose tackle.

I wonder if one of the things which factored into the decision to part ways with Dick LeBeau was his reluctance to change a system which had served him very well for a decade. Keith Butler’s apparent willingness to adjust the system to the reality of the players he had and what they were best at perhaps was the deciding factor.

But that’s my thoughts. What are yours?

2 comments

  • The quintessential football play… a hard, clean, direct tackle that forces a fumble…is also exceedingly rare. Shaz’s hit against the Bengals doesn’t work out that way often. Most fumbles occur from an offensive player being loose with the ball or a defensive player selling out the tackle and focusing on ripping the ball out. So I can see how barn’s comment has merit. A focus on form tackling would also cut down the number of times a defender simply goes for the strip.
    From the INT side, Ike dropped some…TP dropped some…but that number is inflated in our heads, imo. Those years, the defense got shredded often by short passing games — harder to get interceptions that way. Also, lack of pressure didn’t help.

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