Pittsburgh Steelers Demise Caused by Lack of Interceptions

Pittsburgh Steelers Demise
NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA - DECEMBER 23: Joe Haden #23 of the Pittsburgh Steelers attempts in intercept the ball over Alvin Kamara #41 of the New Orleans Saints during the first half at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on December 23, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Steelers intercepted only half as many passes this year as in 2017, a major reason why their record plummeted from 13-3 to 9-6-1. There were several reasons for the 2018 Pittsburgh Steelers demise, but the lack of turnovers are at the top of the list.

After getting a first-round bye before losing to the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2017, the Steelers failed to make the playoffs this year. It was the first time the Steelers didn’t make the playoffs since 2013. However, it was the third time in seven years that they didn’t make the playoffs.

The Steelers picked off 16 passes in 2017, tied for ninth in the league. This year, the Steelers intercepted a measly eight passes. Only four teams had fewer pickoffs.

Pittsburgh Steelers Demise Due to Interception, Turnover Woes

The lack of interceptions led to a big margin in turnover differential, which obviously hurt the Steelers. Along with intercepting 16 passes, the Steelers recovered six fumbles in 2017. That offset the 15 interceptions and five fumbles they suffered, giving them a plus-two turnover differential.

This year Pittsburgh gave up 17 interceptions and nine fumbles. Since they only had eight interceptions and seven fumble recoveries, that gave the Steelers a minus 11 turnover differential. Only four teams had a worse turnover differential. Of the top 10 teams with the highest differential, only Pittsburgh and Philadelphia had winning records.

Changes didn’t help Pittsburgh Steelers much

It’s hard to figure out whether the lack of interceptions was due to the team’s defensive scheme or lack of personnel. The Steelers released safety Mike Mitchell and benched cornerback Artie Burns, who both started in 2017. They brought in rookie Terrell Edmunds at safety and signed safety Morgan Burnett as a free agent. Veteran Mike Sensibaugh started in place of Burns.

Linebacker Joe Bostic was signed as a free agent to try and replace the teams’ defensive leader Ryan Shazier, who suffered a spinal injury in the 12th game of the season last year against the Cincinnati Bengals. Shazier missed all of this season and the chances of him ever getting back on the playing field are very slim.

It’s curious that the number of interceptions was spread out over a number of players in both years. Last year, safety Sean Davis and Shazier tied for the team lead with three interceptions each. The team had 12 interceptions before Shazier’s injury and four after. Mike Hilton had two interceptions and eight other players had one apiece.

This year, cornerback Joe Haden led the team with two interceptions. Six other players, including Davis, had one apiece. Hilton went all the season without an interception.

Not much difference in quarterbacks from last year

There was a perception that the Steelers played better quarterbacks this year than last but the statistics don’t bear that out much. In 2017, the Steelers played four games against quarterback ranked in the top 15. They were 3-1. In 2018, the Steelers played six games against quarterbacks ranked in the top 15 and went 3-3. They did lose this year to Drew Brees and Patrick Mahomes who finished first and second, respectively, in quarterback ratings.

By the way, next year the Steelers will play five quarterbacks, who ranked among the top 12 passers this year. They include Russell Wilson of the
Seattle Seahawks, Jared Goff of the Los Angeles Rams, Philip Rivers of the Los Angeles Chargers, Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots.

In addition the Steelers defense will be tested by  a number of up-and-coming quarterbacks, including Baker Mayfield of the Cleveland Browns and Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens twice, Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills, Sam Darnold of the New York Jets, Jimmy Garroppolo of the San Francisco 49ers and Josh Rosen of the Arizona Cardinals.

Defense regressed this year

Overall, the defense regressed in 2018 from 2017. While the Steelers cut their big pass plays of 40-plus yards in half from last season (13 to 7), they gave up 30 more passing yards per game and allowed seven more touchdowns. The Steelers lead the league last  year in sacks with 56. This year they were tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for the league leaq with 52.

Plus, the Steelers allowed four late fourth-quarter touchdown drives, which led to losses in all of those games. In 2018, they were tied with Detroit in points allowed, giving up an average of 22.5 points per game. They were sixth in overall yards, yielding 372 yards per game and sixth against the run, giving up only 96.1 yards per game. They were tenth in passing, giving up an average of 231 points per game.

In 2017, the Steelers were tied for seventh in points allowed, giving up an average of 19.3 points per game. They were fifth in overall yards, allowing 306 yards per game. They were fifth in passing, giving up 201 yards per game and tenth in rushing, allowing 105.8 yards per game.

Where do they go?

So, where do the Steelers go from here? Well, they definitely need an inside linebacker and a cornerback. They also could use some depth as a number of their top reserves are free agents this year. While the defense is mediocre, it could be a top-five group with the help of some draft picks and free agents.

In the end, the question is whether 2018 will be seen as an aberration for the Steelers or a sign of things to come.

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Mark O'Keefe, 66, is a lifelong follower and fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. A 1976 graduate of Penn State University with a degree in journalism, O'Keefe worked in the newspaper business as a sportswriter, reporter and editor for 46 years, starting as a sports stringer while a high school senior. He covered the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1976 to 1978. A native of Monaca in Beaver County, he's lived in Uniontown, Pa. for the past 37 years.


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