Steelers notebook: Defense turns the tide with flurry of second-half turnovers
January 4, 2016 12:00 AM
James Harrison's interception highlighted a surge of takeaways by the Steelers defense when they needed them most Sunday.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CLEVELAND — There was some uneasiness hanging over the Steelers as they came out for the second half in their do-or-die game against the Browns. They were winning on the scoreboard but losing the turnover battle and the players all knew they were fighting an uphill battle.
All week it had been drilled into their heads by their coach that their turnover margin is critical after their lethargic minus-2 showing the previous week in Baltimore. The previous five times they lost the turnover battle, they lost the game.
Then, in lightning-like fashion, the defense turned the tide with four turnovers on Cleveland’s next five possessions to help the Steelers beat the Browns and get into the playoffs for a second consecutive season.
The biggest turnover came from outside linebacker James Harrison, 37, who picked off Cleveland quarterback Austin Davis in the end zone as the Browns were trying to take the lead early in the third quarter.
It was just his seventh career interception and his first in a Steelers uniform since 2010. The manner in which he made the interception, dropping back into coverage from his rushing position, in the end zone, reminded his teammates of his famous interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII.
Only this time, he made it just 5 yards before getting tackled.
“I started having flashbacks,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “I wasn’t there when he had the Super Bowl interception, but I was like, ‘If he gets loose, I’m going to try to block for him.’ But he couldn’t get off a wide receiver, so we’re going to talk about that.”
The Steelers turned that turnover into three points when Chris Boswell kicked a field goal on the ensuing possession for an eight-point lead. They would score 13 points directly off Cleveland’s miscues and turned a five-point lead into a 16-point victory.
The next two turnovers came 22 seconds apart early in the fourth quarter. Inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons sacked Davis, forcing a fumble, and outside linebacker Arthur Moats recovered.
After a Ben Roethlisberger to Markus Wheaton touchdown pass, Anthony Chickillo forced a fumble on the kickoff and Brandon Boykin got the recovery.
“The turnovers were huge,” Moats said. “You think about how the game was going. It wasn’t like we were blowing them out initially. When you create turnovers and you create more opportunities to score, eventually the offense is going to cash in. At the same time, you’re keeping that other team from having opportunities to score. I feel like that’s why we were able to be successful out there.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin harped on turnovers all week. He stressed the importance of protecting the ball on offense and creating turnovers on defense. The Steelers turned the ball over three times in the first 32 minutes of the game before the defense got the final three and turned that all-important turnover stat in their favor.
They are now 9-1 when they win the turnover battle. It’s the “bright line” that Tomlin referenced earlier in the week.
“Last week we didn’t answer the call,” safety Mike Mitchell said. “[The Ravens] were able to get a turnover on downs early and we allowed them to get a quick touchdown. They were able to generate some turnovers and we weren’t able to get any. We knew this week we wanted to try to answer and keep them shut down. We knew the tempo that we wanted to set as a defense, to get that bad taste out of our mouth from last week.”
Veteran cornerback William Gay provided the final turnover, an interception with 4:38 remaining that put the game on ice. The Steelers are headed to the playoffs, and the defense pointed the way to victory on a day the offense struggled.
“We’ve had our ups and downs, but that’s a resilient group and equally important is that it’s a tight group and they stayed together,” Tomlin said. “I like the demeanor they took the field in some of those instances where we were put on a short field. They didn’t blink. They’ve been in that situation some and they responded appropriately.”
Brown ties Jones
Receiver Antonio Brown had 13 receptions for 187 yards and finished the season tied with Atlanta’s Julio Jones with 136 receptions. They were seven short of tying the NFL record Marvin Harrison of the Colts set in 2002.
Brown also bested his previous record in a single season by seven. He had 129 receptions last season.
Brown’s 1,834 receiving yards are the fourth most in a single season in league history. Calvin Johnson had 1,964 in 2012, Jones had 1,871 this season and Jerry Rice had 1,848 in 1995.
Brown’s 262 receptions over the past two seasons are 10 more than Harrison had in a two-year span from 2001-02. And his 375 receptions over the past three seasons are 21 more than Harrison had from 2000-02.
Brown’s 2015 season was one of the most prolific in league history, yet he was answering questions after the game about a sputtering offense. After scoring 30 points or more in six consecutive games, the Steelers were out of sync in a 20-17 loss to the Ravens last week and appeared out of sorts Sunday for long stretches.
“We’ve got to be a lot better,” he said. “We’ve got to protect the ball. We can’t turn it over. We’ve got to find a way to run the ball better and put points on the board.”
A lucky seven
The Steelers sacked Davis a season-high seven times and finished the season with 48 sacks. That’s their most in a single season since 2010 when they also had 48.
It was the fifth time this season the Steelers recorded five sacks or more in the same game.
Defensive end Stephon Tuitt had two sacks for the first multi-sack game of his career and Timmons posted 1.5.
Williams in boot
Starting running back DeAngelo Williams exited the game in the first half with a right ankle injury and left the locker room in a walking boot after the game.
Fitzgerald Toussaint finished the game and had 24 yards on 12 carries against the NFL’s worst rush defense that had been yielding 135 yards rushing per game.
“I’m confident in anybody we have to call on next week, but we’ll worry about that at the appropriate time,” Tomlin said.
“We’re not counting DeAngelo out yet. We’ll see where he is.”
Receiver Martavis Bryant, who missed two days of practice last week with an illness, dressed and played early. But after Roethlisberger threw an interception on a play Bryant was targeted, he didn’t play much after that.
Bryant said afterward that he was fine. Darrius Heyward-Bey filled in for him and had two catches for 74 yards.
2016 opponents set
The 2016 schedule has been determined. The Steelers will play the Browns, Bengals, Ravens, Cowboys, Giants, Patriots, Jets and Chiefs at home. They will play the Browns, Bengals, Ravens, Redskins, Eagles, Bills, Dolphins and Colts on the road.
• Roethlisberger improved his record to 19-2 against the Browns.
• The Steelers are in the playoffs for the sixth time in Tomlin’s nine-year tenure as head coach.
• The Steelers improved to 8 for 11 on 2-point conversions this season. Their eight conversions are an NFL record in a single season.
• The Steelers recorded their seventh red-zone takeaway of the season, matching the number they had in 2005.
The Steelers deactivated quarterback Mike Vick, receiver Sammie Coates, running back Jordan Todman, offensive lineman Byron Stingily, cornerback Doran Grant, linebacker L.J. Fort and defensive lineman L.T. Walton.
The Browns deactivated quarterback Johnny Manziel, receivers Marlon Moore and Dwayne Bowe, cornerbacks Tramon Williams and Charles Gaines, running back Glenn Winston and linebacker Armonty Bryant.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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