Steelers' pass rush looms as key to forcing more turnovers
September 7, 2013 8:00 AM
Ike Taylor runs back an interception for a touchdown against the Colts last season. The Steelers have been among the worst in the league in forcing turnovers, and if they want to improve in that category, they need to get more pressure on the quarterback.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers had the No. 1 defense in the NFL in 2011 and 2012, but they failed to win the AFC North or a playoff game either year. Last year, they were 8-8 and missed the playoffs.
The Steelers are proud of their No. 1 ranking, but they also recognize giving up the fewest yards doesn't necessarily translate to being a dominant defense. To be dominant, a defense has to create turnovers, and the Steelers have been lacking in that area the past two seasons.
They were 25th in the NFL last season with 20. They had just 15 in 2011 -- last in the league. At the pace the Steelers have been on the past two seasons, it would take three seasons to match the one-year output of the Chicago Bears, who led the league with 44 turnovers last season.
The Steelers used to be among the league leaders.
In 2010, the most recent time the Steelers went to the Super Bowl, they were tied for third in the league with 35 turnovers.
In 2008, when they won the Super Bowl, the Steelers created 29.
"Things happen," veteran cornerback Ike Taylor said. "It's kind of like a snowball effect. We just couldn't get the turnovers last year. We were playing hard, but they just weren't coming. ... This year, I think things will probably change."
Everyone on the defense has played a role in the drop-off. The pass-rushers haven't gotten to the quarterback as often to force fumbles or hurry throws. And the secondary hasn't done a good job of catching passes that should have been interceptions.
Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake challenged his players over the spring and summer to become better at catching.
He instituted new drills and worked hard at them in hopes of boosting the paltry interception statistics.
The Steelers had 10 interceptions all season, and Lawrence Timmons, a linebacker, led the team with three.
"You have to play the defense first," Lake said. "It's not a lack of understanding or not being in the right place at the right time. If we would have just caught the balls that were thrown to us, we would have been pretty good there.
"Since minicamp, I've been emphasizing ball drills more so than usual, really working at that aspect, so, when they're coming out of their break and they're driving on a receiver and they look up and the ball is in their face, they don't panic. They just take it in and go with it."
One player who can help the cause is Cortez Allen, the new starting cornerback opposite Taylor.
In two games as a starter last season, when filling in for an injured Taylor, Allen was in on six turnovers. He had two interceptions (tied for the lead with Ryan Clark in the secondary), forced three fumbles and recovered one.
"Tez can definitely make plays," Taylor said. "That's what he did in a couple of games. He had 33 percent of the turnovers once he came to play.
"We have a lot of guys who can create. Troy [Polamalu] wasn't in all of last year. I wasn't in all last year. I'm not saying I'm a turnover machine, but I think if we all can stay healthy throughout the season it's going to be hell for a lot of teams."
Polamalu missed nine games last season, did not force or recover a fumble and had one interception. When he was NFL defensive player of the year in 2010, Polamalu had seven interceptions, forced a fumble and recovered one.
The front seven has to do its job, too.
The Steelers did not put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks last season. As a result, they were not rushed into bad decisions and were not vulnerable to the strip sack, something the Steelers perfected as an art form in previous years under Hall of Fame coordinator Dick LeBeau.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley must provide a more consistent pass rush with James Harrison gone. Woodley, who has battled injuries and missed nine games the past two seasons, registered 13 sacks in 2011 and 2012 combined after averaging 11.5 each season from 2008-10.
Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones will take over for Harrison at the other outside linebacker spot. Despite starting only three games, Worilds tied for third on the team with five sacks last season. Jones, the team's first-round draft pick from Georgia, showed a knack for being around the ball in the preseason.
The biggest playmaker on defense is inside linebacker Timmons, who became the first Steeler since Joey Porter in 2002 to lead the team in tackles, interceptions and sacks. Timmons had 134 tackles, 3 interceptions and 6 sacks.
Timmons said there is no special formula to creating more turnovers.
"I just feel like if we hustle to the ball and play our defense we'll be fine," he said. "Those things will come if we just do our job. Mike Tomlin always teaches us to hustle to the ball, strip the ball, take the proper angles, things of that nature. When we do those things, we'll be fine."
Woodley also dismissed the idea of trying to create more turnovers. He said fumbles and interceptions come when all 11 players are working together in unison.
"When we're getting sacks, that's due to the push up the middle and the secondary doing a great job covering," he said. "When the secondary is making plays, that's due to us up front applying pressure. When everybody is on the same page and doing their job it will allow us to make more big-time plays."
Those big-time plays could be the difference between missing and making the playoffs.