Steelers defense aims for more takeaways
Wide receiver Antonio Brown famously spends time after virtually every practice catching hundreds of footballs. A teammate suggested others should join him.
“Maybe we have to spend some time with JUGS machine. All of us,” Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Cameron Heyward said.
Steelers’ defenders, indeed, have had that much trouble holding onto the football.
After another turnover-free game — their third over the past six weeks — contributed to a 24-17 loss at Denver on Sunday, the Steelers said they must get more takeaways if their defense is going to prove championship-caliber.
“We have been emphasizing it, but we have to continue to,” said Heyward, the defensive captain. “This isn’t something that is going to get fixed overnight. But we have to keep our head and keep preaching turnovers, turnovers (and) being in the right place, trust our eyes, let the ball guide you to and high-point it.”
After managing just four takeaways (two interceptions, two fumble recoveries) over the past six games, the Steelers are tied for 23rd in the NFL in takeaways with 12 (six interceptions, six fumble recoveries) in 11 games.
The problem is exacerbated by an offense that has not protected the ball well in recent weeks. The Steelers rank 26th in turnover margin at minus-7. The six teams ranked below them are a combined 19-47, so the Steelers’ 7-3-1 record and first-place standing in the AFC North are testaments to how well they have played otherwise.
But with three of the NFL’s best teams (Los Angeles Chargers, New England, New Orleans) among their final five regular-season games, the Steelers recognize they need to start acquiring turnovers to win.
“As a defense, you want to force turnovers to give the offense a short field,” slot corner Mike Hilton said. “But they come in bunches. You just have to find ways to get them.”
Perhaps in a nod to the randomness of fumbles (who recovers them, typically, is determined by luck), Heyward emphasizes interceptions as the Steelers’ clearest path to creating more turnovers.
The Steelers have only one interception over the past four games and two over the past eight games. Of their six on the season, four are from defensive backs — linebackers Vince Williams and Bud Dupree have pick-sixes for the others. The secondary has just one interception over the past eight games.
“Interceptions, they come when they come and you have to take advantage of the opportunity when they do,” Hilton said.
Should the Steelers be more aggressive in pursuing the ball?
“You can take some risks,” Hilton said, “but sometimes those risks will hurt you. You just have to try to be in position and try to make the plays when they are there.”
The Steelers’ defense has only two fumble recoveries over the past six games and has induced just five forced fumbles in that time.
Only five teams in the NFL have fewer interceptions. Their 10 forced fumbles are slightly above the NFL average.
One thing the defenders seem to agree on in regards to inducing turnovers: don’t force the issue too much.
“You never want to be out of position. To be out of position, you’re costing the defense,” Heyward said. “But I think being in position, that goes with rush and coverage working together, (then) some balls might sail or we get some tipped balls.
“We have got to just be more opportunistic. … There were some opportunities for us to get the ball (during Sunday’s game at Denver), and we just didn’t seize the moment.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.