Kevin Gorman: Steelers counting on turnovers as best offense to beat Browns
Mike Tomlin was counting his blessings before Thanksgiving, mostly for the way the Pittsburgh Steelers defense has feasted on turnovers this season the way we do turkey on the holiday.
The Steelers rank second in the NFL in takeaways with 28, trailing the New England Patriots by one, and a fourth-quarter forced fumble by Devin Bush and recovery by Minkah Fitzpatrick was the difference between escaping Cincinnati with a victory versus losing to a winless AFC North team on the road.
“I think it is a collective effort,” Tomlin said. “I think you can choose to highlight individuals if you so choose within the group to write a story, but I think it has really been collective. They have collectively decided, and I am thankful for that.”
But you can’t blame the Steelers coach if he also asked for turnovers against the Cleveland Browns while praying before his turkey dinner. The Steelers have forced at least two turnovers in every game this season but two — the 33-3 loss at New England in the season opener and the 21-7 loss at Cleveland on Nov. 14.
“We want to show the world that we’re consistent,” Steelers outside linebacker Bud Dupree said, “and that we can do it each week.”
It’s no secret the Steelers’ best offense is a great defense, especially with their quarterback carousel and injuries at the skill positions. Not only does the defense have 14 interceptions and 14 fumbles, it has returned three for touchdowns. The defense also has set up the offense with a short field too many times to count.
Just not against the Browns.
“We didn’t do well enough,” Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said. “They scored 21 points on us, so we didn’t do good enough. We’ve got to win the ballgame. It’s in our hands, and we got to win it.”
How much the Steelers can harass Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield into turnovers will go a long way to determining the outcome of the game — and their playoff hopes. The Steelers are positioned for the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs, but a loss to the Browns could be devastating.
Mayfield has been sacked 27 times this season, but he escaped pocket pressure with rollouts in taking only one sack against the Steelers. Mayfield also has thrown nearly as many interceptions (13) as touchdowns (14) — that’s one more pick than all three Steelers quarterbacks combined this season — but didn’t throw any in the first meeting between the AFC North rivals.
The Browns also have a penchant for fumbling, as Mayfield has four, running back Nick Chubb has three (two at New England) and running back Kareem Hunt and receiver Odell Beckham Jr. each have one. That the Steelers couldn’t force a fumble or pick off a pass was their undoing in Cleveland.
And it almost cost them in Cincinnati. Although Dupree had a strip-sack for a fumble recovery and Fitzpatrick recovered the ball knocked loose by Bush against the Bengals, the Steelers failed to pick off a pass by rookie quarterback Ryan Finley, who had thrown interceptions in his previous two games.
That didn’t escape Tomlin’s review.
“I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we have left some out there,” Tomlin said. “We left some out there in Cincinnati. That game could have ended a lot more fluidly had we caught some of those balls we dropped in the secondary. So, we are still very much a group in progress in all areas and probably will be. That is just the story of seeking perfection.”
Forcing turnovers has been a point of emphasis for the Steelers since the spring, when new secondary coach Teryl Austin punished players who dropped interceptions by making them do push-ups and harped on stripping as much as tackling. It’s no coincidence Austin’s arrival has sparked the Steelers’ surge in turnovers.
Butler, however, noted he’s “never seen a good coach without good players.” The addition of Fitzpatrick has made a world of difference, as he has helped improve communication in the secondary and has provided big plays: five interceptions, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries, with touchdown returns by pick and fumble.
But it’s a collective effort. Bush has two interceptions and four fumble recoveries, returning one for a touchdown against the L.A. Chargers. T.J. Watt has five forced fumbles and Dupree three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Ten Steelers defenders have interceptions, eight have forced fumbles and seven have fumble recoveries.
“The players deserve the credit,” Tomlin said. “We make points of emphasis, we construct days that are conducive to building awareness and techniques that produce it, but they have to do it. They have to make the catches. They have to rake the ball. They have to be ball aware and they have done that to a man. I don’t think it is any secret.”
There is no secret to the Steelers’ success in forcing turnovers, creating opportunities for the offense and even scoring touchdowns. It’s a philosophy shared by the Patriots.
“As long as we do our job, they’re going to come,” Fitzpatrick said. “That’s what happens when you’re in the right spot, when the rushers rush and the cover guys cover. As long as you’re doing your job and execute at a high level, it happens. In the Cleveland game, we didn’t execute at a high level, so we didn’t really have any turnovers.”
And we already know how that turned out for the Steelers. This is a game where they need to count on the collective effort, and for be thankful for turnovers with their blessings.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .