Defense is in the details: Steelers slow to generate takeaways

PITTSBURGH -- The ball meant for Randall Cobb sailed over the receiver’s outstretched fingers and right to the hands of Minkah Fitzpatrick.

But the ball kept going straight through the safety’s hands and bounced away harmlessly on the ground.

Fitzpatrick crouched on the ground with his arms swinging loosely toward the turf, his head hanging ever so slightly. Another opportunity for a momentum-swinging turnover slipped away.

The Pittsburgh Steelers, known for their hard-hitting and aggressive defense, have been unusually quiet on the takeaway front through four games. And with the offense still sputtering as it searches for an identity, the lack of takeaways is even more noticeable as the team searches for a source of splash-play energy to get back on track after a 1-3 start beginning with Sunday's game against the Denver Broncos (1 p.m., ET, Fox).

“I could’ve had it,” Fitzpatrick said of the near-interception off Aaron Rodgers’ throw to Cobb. “Should’ve, same thing. Same thing happened last week, the one that bounced off my face that TE [Terrell Edmunds] caught.

“We’ve just got to do our job and make the play when it comes to us. It’s not us trying to force turnovers or us forcing people to give us the ball. It’s us being in the right positions, us putting pressure on the quarterback, us catching passes that come to us. It’s us punching at the ball. It’s a combination of all those things working together.”

Through four weeks, the Steelers have only three takeaways, courtesy of two fumble recoveries and one interception. At the same mark a year ago, they had seven, and in 2019, the Steelers had generated a whopping nine turnovers with three interceptions and six fumble recoveries. The issues keeping the Steelers from reaching the numbers of the previous season are multi-layered.

The Steelers led the league in takeaways in 2019 with 38 and were second in 2020 with 27.

Part of the problem is the defense playing from a position where opposing offenses can better protect the ball, coach Mike Tomlin stressed Tuesday.

“When you're down by multiple scores, you don't have many opportunities to create that havoc or that atmosphere that's conducive to producing turnovers,” Tomlin said. “They hide the football. They function in a more conservative manner. ... Whether it’s the schematics or the players themselves, that's a component of it as well.”

The Steelers also have to do a better job with the details of the defense, Tomlin said.

“The detail will provide the splash that we need for the significant plays,” Tomlin said Sunday.

Defensive captain Cam Heyward reiterated his head coach’s sentiment Thursday.

“With detail and execution, it looks like luck, but you’re prepared for it,” Heyward said. “Versus good teams like Denver, they have a stout defense that causes a lot of turnovers and their offense really takes care of the ball. That’s a recipe for success for them. We’ve got to make them uncomfortable. We get them in some longer downs where they have to take chances.”

Even with the turnovers just inches away, Fitzpatrick doesn’t feel extra frustration or pressure to make something big happen. Pressing, he said, and doing too much can make it worse.

“It’s still early,” he said. “Everybody’s panicking, crazy, acting like we’ve lost every single game and everything like that. We just finished the first quarter.

“The first year I got here, we had the same record. We were 1-3 or 1-4 when I first got here. Through the first couple weeks of me being here, we were making plays and everything like that, but it’s a progression. We’ve got to build on everything we’re doing. We haven’t done what we want to do, but we’ve got to build on what we’re doing. Keep stacking good games on top of each other and that’s it. No panic mode. I’m not frustrated about our record, I’m frustrated about the way we’re playing.”