Steelers aim to create more turnovers this year with speedier defense
The Steelers defense once was the NFL's gold standard — the team that was the most innovative, most physical, most intimidating and most game-changing.
That was altered during successive 8-8 seasons in which the Seattle Seahawks and others literally flew past them in schematics and statistics, taking defense to a different level and leaving the slower, aging Steelers defense looking like, well, old news.
The stats don't lie: the Super Bowl champion Seahawks had 39 takeaways last season, the Steelers only 20. And the Steelers had a 31st-ranked 31 interceptions the past three seasons, compared to Seattle's 68.
“When you watched the (the Steelers) on a loose ball, nobody is going for the ball,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. “I think they've got to have a better mentality that loose balls are our balls, and not just play to the whistle.”
Trying to return to the Steelers' persona of the recent past — sacking the quarterback, turning the ball over, stopping the run, making quarterbacks throw into heavy coverage — defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and linebackers coach Keith Butler are tinkering with some of their new tools during training camp.
Shamarko Thomas is a safety, but he's being utilized in multiple ways as the Steelers try to get him on the field at times alongside Troy Polamalu and Mike Mitchell. He leveled two offensive players, including center Maurkice Pouncey, with big hits Thursday.
And as the Steelers employ their sub packages more and more — it effectively has become their base defense — the terms outside linebacker and inside linebacker are becoming somewhat outdated.
Watch Jarvis Jones, coming off a one-sack rookie year, and sometimes will line up inside or switch sides with Jason Worilds. First-round pick Ryan Shazier, expected to start inside, sometimes shows up as an edge rusher in sub packages.
What else might the Steelers show off Sept. 7 against either Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel of the Browns?
“I can't tell you all of our tricks, man,” Jones said. “We've got a couple of packages with new people and new roles — we're more athletic and coach LeBeau and coach Butler are able to move us around to play different positions, (in) different packages. It offers different looks.”
Will it offer different results?
“We're going to move them around a little bit. We've got some talented guys there, and we're going to use them as much as we can and put them in position to be successful,” Butler said. “We've got some speed, and we're trying to utilize it as best we can.”
The Steelers have swapped out all but three defensive starters in just two years.
“If you're a team that's giving up a lot of run yardage, it's difficult to put people to get sacks and make big plays,” Butler said of a defense that was 21st against the run in 2013. “We've got to get back to that as a defense. We've got to stop people from running, and we've got to dictate to them. If we do that, then the sacks will come and the turnovers will come.”
Mitchell was a major turnover producer in Carolina — four interceptions and two forced fumbles last season, plus four sacks. And the defense will hum much better if Jones becomes the pressure-creating edge rusher the Steelers envision, and Worilds produces as he did by getting seven sacks in the final eight games.
“(Jones) understands it's a while before he becomes a guy in this league that people have got to worry about,” Butler said.
“But he did a lot of things that were disruptive. … You'd like to see Jarvis have more than one (sack), and he probably should have had five or six, so we'll see how he does this year.”