Steelers’ defense toothless in turnover department

The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t lead the NFL in any defensive

category except maybe an unofficial one: missed opportunities.

Sure, the defending AFC champions are putting up their usual

sterling numbers as Thanksgiving approaches. The Steelers rank near

the top of the league in nearly every major defensive category,

including yards against (third), pass defense (third), run defense

(sixth) and points allowed (fifth).

Which makes the number in the final statistical column –

takeaways – so jarring.

More than halfway through the season, a defense littered with

Pro Bowlers and Defensive Players of the Year and coached by a Hall

of Famer have four takeaways.

That’s four, as in the same number of takeaways by the woeful

Miami Dolphins, who have played one fewer game than the Steelers


That’s four as in on pace to set an NFL record for takeaway


The Baltimore Colts generated 11 turnovers in the

strike-shortened 1982 season. The Washington Redskins set the full

season record by taking it away 12 times in 2006.

At their current rate, the Steelers will finish with eight; they

created 35 turnovers in 2010 on the way to the Super Bowl.

”I can’t really put my finger on it man,” linebacker James

Farrior said. ”I just feel like the ball isn’t bouncing our way.

We’ve seen balls on the ground. We’ve seen balls tipped in the air.

Pretty much everything that could happen to get a turnover, to

cause a turnover, we’ve seen. We just haven’t been getting it


The secondary is among the best in the league yet has all of two

interceptions. The front seven has generated just two fumbles, none

caused by players not named James Harrison, who missed a month with

a fractured orbital bone over his right eye.

Safety Troy Polamalu has built his career on making what coach

Mike Tomlin calls ”splash” plays. This year, Polamalu has ended

up all wet.

Though he scored Pittsburgh’s only defensive touchdown on a

fumble return in a 23-20 win over Indianapolis on Sept. 25,

Polamalu admits Harrison did all the hard work on the play by

knocking the ball out of quarterback Curtis Painter’s right hand.

All Polamalu had to do was pick up the ball and stroll the 16 yards

into the end zone.

Holding onto the ball when it comes his way is proving more

difficult. The 2010 Defensive Player of the Year has been hit in

the hands three times with a pass this season. Each time Polamalu

was so intent on tackling the opponent he didn’t react in time to

snag the ball.

”There have been years where I wasn’t able to even touch the

ball during games and there’s years like these ones where it’s just

become really, really close,” Polamalu said. ”(Turnovers) would

make all the difference in how we win and lose games, of


Maybe that’s the most startling thing about Pittsburgh’s

takeaway woes. Despite an inability to get their hands on the ball

on defense, the Steelers (6-3) are winning.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. Consider the Dolphins

are 1-7. The ’82 Colts went 0-8-1. The ’06 Redskins won just five


”It’s a credit to our defense that we’re still able to play in

games and it’s definitely a credit to our offense because we

definitely don’t give them a short field,” safety Ryan Clark


Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has been saying for weeks he

expects things to turn around. He didn’t think he’d still be

waiting for his team’s first two-turnover game in mid-November.

”It’s very frustrating for us, but we’re just going to keep

swinging away,” LeBeau said.

Don’t mistake swinging away with taking unnecessary chances.

Sure the Steelers would like the ball. Sometimes, getting the

tackle is just as important.

”Let’s put it this way, if you get the ball once every 20 plays

and they score on the other 19, which would be the most

important?” LeBeau said.

At least when the Steelers are managing to take it away, they’re

making it count.

Polamalu’s touchdown helped the Steelers escape Peyton

Manning-less Indianapolis with a victory. LaMarr Woodley’s

interception against Tennessee turned into a field goal in a 38-17

romp over the Titans. Ryan Clark’s interception on Arizona’s first

drive kick-started a 32-20 victory over the Cardinals, and

Harrison’s strip of Baltimore’s Joe Flacco let the Steelers take a

late 20-16 lead a week ago.

Jumping on a loose ball on Sunday against the surprising Bengals

(6-2) might be a problem. Cincinnati has put the ball on the ground

just once. Coach Marvin Lewis calls it a bit of an anomaly and

offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is wary of a Pittsburgh defense

that’s getting healthy following injuries that have decimated the

front seven.

”They’ve been trying to mix and match personnel, play people at

other positions,” Gruden said. ”When they get all their guys back

and healthy, I’m sure the turnovers will come. They play hard, they

run to the ball, their safeties hit extremely hard, they just do a

great job The turnovers will come for them, just hopefully not