In 2010, the Pittsburgh Steelers defense (excluding special teams) came up with 31 takeaways of the football in the regular season.
In 2011, through fifteen games, they have only 13.
It looks even worse when you consider 4 of those 13 this year came from early Christmas gifts off the arm of former Pitt quarterback Tyler Palko in Kansas City. 1 came from a concussed Colt McCoy late in the Cleveland game when Colt clearly shouldn't have been playing.
That's then 8 non-laughable takeaways from the Steelers defense in fifteen games, an 11-win defense mind you, and the #1 yardage defense in the NFL.
13 takeaways despite their team success is truly a remarkable number. The Steelers had just 1 takeaway through four weeks (14 through the same stretch in 2010), and just 2 total stolen footballs through 6 games. The Pittsburgh defense came up empty in their marquee matchups this year with New England (a victory) and San Francisco, as well as just getting one ball away from Joe Flacco and company in the two combined Baltimore losses.
What has happened?
After a thorough study of every one of the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive takeaways of the last two regular seasons, here's what I've come up with:
-It's not as much of a missing James Harrison / LaMarr Woodley sack-fumble combination (due to injuries and suspensions) as you'd think. While the presence of those two players healthy and together may surely have had an indirect impact on last year's 31 takeaways, only 3 of last season's 11 fumble recoveries came with #92 or #56 sacking the QB. Harrison has 2 this year, not far off that pace. And of the 20 interceptions in 2010, just two according to my notes and tape-watch came as the direct result of a Woodley / Harrison near-sack or pressure.
-That's not to say pressure on QBs didn't aid in the 20-INT total of 2010. It's just not as simple as saying no Harrison and Woodley together = fewer takeaways. In fact, Woodley's loss in the takeaway department this year may have been felt more in his coverage ability as four INTs (two that Woodley snagged, one each that Lawrence Timmons and Ryan Clark nabbed) came while #56 was dropping backwards in 2010. Jason Worilds is not as adept a coverage man, and probably is more predictable in behavior for other teams.
-Speaking of Timmons, he was more disruptive last year to be sure in the turnover game. He had two fine INTs in 2010, one while stepping in front of Terrell Owens in coverage, to go along with a pop of Titans running back Chris Johnson to force a pigskin loose. This year, Lawrence has just one pick-off after a William Gay pass deflection.
-Troy Polamalu's interception numbers are down from 7 to 1 this year, and that's a major difference of course. Troy has dropped a couple of relatively easy-looking catches in 2011 for a player of his standard. Last season, his seven INTs included the signature play of Week 1 at the sideline off the arm of Matt Ryan, to go along with diving or stretching catches against Oakland, Tennessee, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. In 2011, only Colt McCoy's attempted throw to Evan Moore found #43's possession.
-Perimeter tackling has also contributed to the situation. Last year, 5 of the team's 11 forced fumbles came from wide receivers or running backs on good helmet-or-bodypart-on-football smashes. This year, not one opposing WR or RB has lost a football to Pittsburgh.
-DB blitzes also provided 2 of last year's 11 forced fumbles, the most memorable being Polamalu's strip sack on Baltimore's Joe Flacco in the comeback victory at Heinz Field. Bryant McFadden also had a sack fumble in 2010. In 2011, zero from the DBs.
-Another possibility is that last year's 20 INT total was a bit of a fluke, or at least taking advantage of the meek. Here are the QB's that delivered 16 of those 20 INTs: Colt McCoy (5), Carson Palmer (4), Vince Young (2), Jimmy Clausen, Bruce Gradkowski, Jason Campbell, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Kerry Collins. Some of their thrown interceptions were poorly thrown footballs. But in 2011, even Steelers wins over Seattle's Tavaris Jackson and Jacksonville's Blaine Gabbert produced no takeaways.
Whatever the reasons for dropping from 31 to 13 takeaways, odds are the Pittsburgh Steelers defense need to turn things around in the playoffs for the team to have success. The biggest Steelers' losses of 2010 (Green Bay in the Super Bowl, New England and the NY Jets in the regular season) and 2011 have a common theme: Lack of thievery.