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 (6-3).
That's four as in on pace to set an NFL record for takeaway futility.
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 done.''
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 course.''
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 games.
''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 said.
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 Sunday.''