Tim Benz: Here’s how Steelers can create more turnovers this season
The defensive backs can take as many reps on the JUGS machine as they want. They can catch balls until their hands look like Antonio Brown’s feet.
We can point at Steven Nelson’s four interceptions coming to Pittsburgh from Kansas City.
Everyone can keep their fingers crossed that safety Terrell Edmunds will make the leap in Year 2 that Troy Polamalu did at the same position back in 2004, when he went from no interceptions to five.
Or we can go back and look at the lone turnover caused by Tyler Matakevich in the preseason opener against the Buccaneers.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) August 10, 2019
Because in the Steelers’ ongoing discussion about creating more turnovers, that is how it is going to have to happen.
Hitting the quarterback. Getting him to throw off-balance or too soon. Getting strip sacks and batted balls.
Come to think of it, a lot of the stuff you can’t do on the practice fields at Saint Vincent. After all, even breathing near the quarterback in a training-camp session is a sin.
“That’s one of the challenges you get,” Matakevich said Wednesday. “You can’t hit the quarterbacks live. In a game, it’s not like you are hearing somebody blow the whistle and guys are arguing about whether he would’ve (gotten a turnover), or guys saying he wouldn’t have.”
So for all the talk the Steelers have had about improving on their piddly 15 turnovers from a year ago (29th in the NFL), the quickest route to making that happen is still something they can’t rehearse in training camp: Make the quarterback concerned that he’s going to hit the ground.
Oh, yeah. And that better come from guys higher on the depth chart than Matakevich, and it needs to happen against opponents better than those playing for Tampa Bay in the preseason opener.
But at least Matakevich — a reserve linebacker and special-teams regular — proved the point Friday.
“The coaches have been emphasizing ball searching since OTAs in the spring,” Matakevich said. “It’s just neat to see the guys working on it. And when it actually happens in a game, that’s what we are supposed to do.”
Another backup linebacker, Ulysees Gilbert III, could’ve caused a second interception when he forced a wobbly pass late in the game by hitting Bucs QB Ryan Griffin as he was throwing. However, the ball fell short of anyone else on the field.
“It starts with the guys up front,” cornerback Mike Hilton said Wednesday. “If they are able to get pressure and make the quarterback uncomfortable, that makes our job easier on the back end.”
Proponents of the Steelers defense will point to the team’s 52 sacks, which tied Kansas City for the NFL lead.
I’ve often argued that stat is occasionally misleading as representative of quality, consistent pressure since sacks often come in bunches against bad offensive lines in tilted games.
As evidence, 22 of those sacks occurred in four games against non-playoff teams last year. Those contests were the opener against the Browns, the finale against the Bengals, and the two blowout wins over Carolina and Atlanta.
Maybe the 9-6-1 Steelers make the playoffs if — instead of even getting an extra sack — that Steelers defense harasses the opposing quarterback into a stray throw or fumble.
Coach Mike Tomlin seemed to agree with that assessment to a certain point on Wednesday as he expressed a desire to see more of “the sack-fumble game,” as Matakevich produced last weekend.
“We’ve had 50-plus sacks the last (two) years,” Tomlin said. “We’ve got to get turnovers. Sometimes they are related. Sometimes they are not.”
Keep in mind, no one on Pittsburgh’s front seven deflected or broke up more than three passes last year. And T.J. Watt was the only player in the group to force more than one fumble, with six.
“Every year turnovers are a big point of emphasis, especially after last year. Leaving a lot of plays out there,” Watt said during minicamp drills in June. “We have to bring the juice. Bring the excitement. Bring the swag.”
I rarely remember a lack of swag being an issue for the Steelers. Backing it up, however, is where this defense has managed to fall short at crucial times in recent seasons.
Pushing itself to get the ball back more often will be a tremendous help.
And it’s not just about the defensive backs getting interceptions.