Tip Sheet: Saints, Steelers preaching takeaways

Len Pasquarelli, The Sports Xchange
The SportsXchange

In a 2011 season in which a record 10 quarterbacks amassed over 4,000 passing yards each, clubs combined for the highest per-game scoring average in the Super Bowl era (44.3 points per contest) and a lot of stadium scoreboards were all but transformed into tote boards.
There was a corollary effect on the other side of the football as well.
League defenses, obviously, surrendered the most points per game in nearly 50 years. Quarterbacks went down a little less, but their collective accuracy was way up, to record levels, in fact. Ball possession was emphasized at all the skill position spots. Time of possession for offenses crept up a bit and there were instances in which there was an offensive parade up and down the field.
And, maybe a bit less conspicuously, defensive takeaways were reduced by more than 5 percent over the previous year.
It's not all that unusual when takeaways go down. In six of the past 10 seasons, interceptions and fumble recoveries dropped from their totals of the year before, sometimes even more precipitously than in 2011. And the 810 turnovers generated by defenses represented only the second lowest total -- the 2008 campaign had just 793 takeaways -- in a decade. But in a few of the precincts, the early word from summer training camps is that the decline in takeaways is being treated as a serious matter, indeed, one that several head coaches and defensive coordinators have made it a significant priority to address.
Five franchises that did not change their head coaches for 2012 either switched their defensive coordinators for the coming season or at least diminished the autonomy of their defensive boss. And that doesn't count New Orleans, where the controversial Gregg Williams departed for St. Louis and a reunion with longtime friend Jeff Fisher even before his "Bountygate" indefinite suspension, but where there were solid indications he made hit exit only a step ahead of the posse and would have been replaced anyway. Coincidence or not, there has been fallout over the epidemic shortcomings of defenses in 2011, and the inability to pry the ball away from offenses clearly is a factor.
"One of the things we always prided ourselves on," acknowledged Saints' free safety Malcolm Jenkins, "was getting the ball for our offense or scoring points ourselves. But that definitely was missing (in 2011)."
Maybe with an eye toward the bounty allegations, some jaded cynics might contend the Saints were perhaps too busy attempting to collect illicit bonuses, and fretted less about takeaways.
But there is, of course, no evidence suggesting any connection between trying to knock a quarterback's block off and wanting to pick him off. Or of separating a running back from some body parts and separating him from the ball. What can't be denied, though, is this: When New Orleans won the Super Bowl to complete the 2009 season, the defense recorded 39 takeaways and scored nine times in the regular season. It became a regular sight to see a Saints' defender scooping up a loose ball and cavorting into the end zone.
Over the ensuing two years, however, the Saints have 41 takeaways and five defensive touchdowns.
The defense produced only 16 takeaways in 2011, the second fewest in the league, and tallied just two touchdowns. The 16 takeaways were the second fewest ever for a Williams-coordinated defense. Just the 2006 Washington Redskins, who collected a paltry dozen takeaways under Williams' stewardship, managed fewer.
"For whatever reason, we just weren't making the (big) plays that we have in other years," said cornerback Jabari Greer, who this week underwent surgery for a sports hernia and will miss some time in camp. "It wasn't for a lack of aggressiveness, that's for sure. (The ball) just didn't come our way. And when it did, we didn't latch onto it. The (Williams) defense has always been about taking ii away. We didn't get it done last season. To have our kind of defense, and be a negative (in takeaway/turnover differential) shouldn't happen."
The differential number -- a team's defensive takeaways versus the number of times its offense coughs up the ball via interception or lost fumble -- has long been a solid indicator of success in the league. There have been just five teams with negative turnover ratios that advanced to the playoffs since 2007. Still, defenders and defensive coordinators emphasized that they have no sway over what transpires on the offensive side, one-half of the differential component.
Said one veteran defensive coordinator: "Most of the time, you're not even watching your offense when it's on the field, much less have anything to do with the way that it plays. You take care of the things you can control. And (takeaways) is one of those things that you can generate, right?"
In his dozen seasons as a coordinator, Williams' defenses have averaged over 25 takeaways and four times produced 30 or more. That's why the "down" season in 2011 was so surprising. But former free safety Darren Sharper -- whose 63 career interceptions are tied for the sixth most in history, who scored three touchdowns for the Saints on interception returns in 2009, and who could be a Hall of Fame candidate at some point in the future -- noted that with quarterbacks getting rid of the ball quicker, takeaways are harder than ever.
And, in some cases, offenses simply catch up to longtime defensive schemes.
"There's probably some luck involved, too, but usually good pressure forces the turnovers," Sharper said. "But the ball's coming out fast, quarterbacks have been increasingly accurate ... and (ballcarriers) are probably more aware of taking care of the ball. You can plan all you want (as a defense), but turnovers happen for a lot of reasons. And they don't happen for a lot of reasons, too. And last season, they didn't happen as much."
And not just in New Orleans.
There were seven defenses, an unusually high number, that each generated fewer than 20 takeaways in 2011. The cumulative record of those teams was just 51-61. Remarkably, three of the teams made the playoffs, and Pittsburgh and the Saints won 12 and 13 games, respectively. Still, there was something missing from the defenses of the two teams, players said, and that was the takeaway factor.
One of the playoff teams with fewer than 20 takeaways was Denver, which had 18 under former coordinator Dennis Allen, now the Oakland head coach. One of the early priorities under new coordinator Jack Del Rio, some Broncos' defenders said this week, was producing more takeaways.
The average number of takeaways for playoff teams over the past five seasons is 28.8. The Steelers had barely half that number, just 15, during a 2011 season in which they nonetheless led the league statistically in defense.
"Most of the (metrics) indicate we were a good defense," veteran Steelers' left cornerback Ike Taylor said. "But a big part of our game is creating opportunities for our offense with (takeaways). And we didn't do that."
Pittsburgh, in fact, managed only four fumbles recoveries, and only the Miami Dolphins had fewer. The recoveries were the fewest by the Steelers since 1945. But the defense simply didn't take the ball away in general. In 13 of its 17 games (counting the overtime playoff loss at Denver), Pittsburgh had either one or zero takeaways. No Steelers' defender had more than three takeaways.
"The game," said strong safety Troy Polamalu, who had two interceptions and a fumble recovery in 2011, "is about (possessing) the ball. You can't score without it, on either side, without the ball. Getting the football is (imperative)."
When it came to pirating the ball away from opponents, though, the Pittsburgh defense was impotent in 2011. Historically so, in fact, at least as it pertains to coordinator Dick LeBeau, one of the most respected men in the game. In his 22 seasons as a coordinator, LeBeau's units have averaged 29.5 takeaways per year, eight times had more than 30, twice registered 40 or more. In 2010, just one season before the '11 drought, the Steelers compiled 35 takeaways.
And then came last season, a performance that perplexed Pittsburgh defenders, and one that they have set out to reverse.
"Turnovers come in bunches," Polamalu told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this week. "(But) last year, there were no bunches. Hopefully, this year, we can seize on the opportunities we have to make interceptions, fumbles, whatnot."
The Steelers are hardly the only team thinking that way.
"We've got to get back to being us this year," Jenkins said. "And that means creating a lot more takeaways."

--Around the League--

*Back in March, at the annual league meetings in Palm Beach, Fla., The Sports Xchange was one of several media outlets to report on the near giddiness of NFL owners when baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers were sold for $2 billion to a group that includes NBA Hall of Famer Magic Johnson.
At the time, veteran consultant Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based SportsCorp, acknowledged that several league owners "are smiling right now."
Those smiles probably grew some on Thursday. Randy Lerner agreed to sell the Cleveland Browns to Knoxville, Tenn., businessman Jimmy Haslam III for roughly $1 billion, including an initial investment of $700 million. But the 10-figure price tag didn't quite have owners dancing in the streets. Almost, but not quite.
"When you look at the valuation of the Browns," one AFC owner said, "it's not altogether outlandish."
True enough, in the latest Forbes Magazine ranking of NFL franchises, Cleveland's worth was pegged at $977 million in a league where 15 franchises were gauged at $1 billion or better. So maybe the AFC owner is correct.
A billion bucks for the Browns might not be too far out of line.
The owner noted that the bigger test will come when some teams that were much lower rated than the Browns -- like the Buffalo Bills, when owner Ralph Wilson passes on -- are sold. The Bills, who likely will enter into an estate trusteeship upon Wilson's death, and who won't stay in the family, were value at $792 million by Forbes.
"When you see a team like that, in the $800 million range, go for a billion dollars, then that will really be something," the owner said.
The league's newest approved owner, Shahid Khan of Jacksonville, purchased the Jaguars for about $760 million, after they were valued at $725 million.
Of course, the NFL club with the highest valuation is Dallas, at $1.85 billion. The average value price in the league is $1.04 billion. So, in essence, while $1 billion is a ton of money for anything, Haslam purchased the Browns for roughly the average.

*Pittsburgh coaches and officials definitely aren't making as big a deal out of the "small tear" in the rotator cuff of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's pitching arm as was a good part of the national media this week.
Just a couple days before Roethlisberger announced the tear to the world, both an offensive assistant and a high-ranking Steelers' official told The Sports Xchange that the quarterback was throwing the ball with impressive velocity and accuracy in the early stages of camp.
The injury actually occurred early in November, and while it prompted some degree of discomfort for Roethlisberger -- who hurt the arm reaching for the goal line in a physical game against the Ravens -- there was no appreciable effect on his arm strength or efficiency. People within the Pittsburgh organization don't anticipate any difference this season.
While there has been some low-level discussion about having the tear repaired at some point -- a few people pointed out that the injury is as much an impingement as a tear and that many quarterbacks probably have what is known in the business as a "thrower's tear" -- there are no formal plans for that.
Roethlisberger has probably thrown a little less in camp this summer than in the past, but that's more a concession to age (he turned 30 in March) than the rotator cuff tear. The Steelers don't have Roethlisberger on a strict "pitch count" as do some teams (like Atlanta with Matt Ryan) with their quarterbacks in camp.
Roethlisberger is somewhat calculatingly candid about injuries -- remember his contention about broken toes, which upset former coach Bill Cowher, a few years ago -- but this latest proclamation seemed to just be an honest response, not an embellishment. For now, at least, the national media appears far more concerned with the rotator cuff status than do the folks in the team's Latrobe, Pa., training camp.

*One element with which Roethlisberger, and some other quarterbacks, will have to contend this season might be the seeming increase in emphasizing the screen pass by many clubs.
New coordinators in Pittsburgh (Todd Haley) and Atlanta (Dirk Koetter) have been fairly outspoken about using their running backs more as receivers in 2012, and about increasing screen opportunities. The return of Josh McDaniels as coordinator in New England, after a two-year absence, should increase the number of screen passes for the Patriots, who had gotten away from the play a bit.
Look for McDaniels to pick the brains of New Orleans officials some next week when the Pats and Saints practice together. The Saints, of course, are one of the best screen-pass teams in the league, and their screen repertoire is extensive.
"It takes some getting used to," allowed Ryan, who, under former coordinator Mike Mularkey, probably threw fewer screens than any quarterback in the league over the past four years. "It's a great weapon, but it's probably harder than a lot of people think."
Roethlisberger agreed with the assessment, and cited the timing involved with being accurate on a play most fans consider easy because of the short length of the throw.
"It takes really good timing; that's the big thing," Roethlisberger said. In the past five seasons, the Steelers have completed more than 60 passes to their backs just once.
The ramped-up emphasis on the screen also means a mental adjustment of sorts for guys, like Roethlisberger and Ryan, more accustomed to throwing the ball down the field. A key part of Roethlisberger's game -- and one of the reasons he annually ranks among the NFL leaders in yards per attempt, having been above 8.0 yards in four of his seven seasons with more than 12 starts -- is extending plays and attempting to get the ball downfield to his wideouts.
Haley wants him to dump the ball more, no small task for a guy who has never had a back catch more than 40 passes in his time as the Pittsburgh starter, and take advantage of players like rookie Chris Rainey, who can make tacklers miss in space.

*There are still nearly nine months to go before the 2013 draft, but scouts have been kept busy, not just by the early assessments of potential prospects, and the annual meetings of the combine groups, but also by a spate of offseason incidents.
Two examples: The attack this week on Wisconsin running back Montee Ball, and a vandalism incident involving Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray.
"It never stops ... but this year, we've really had some checking up (to do)," lamented an area scout for one club. "You've got to be diligent on this (stuff)."
Ball is one of the premier running back prospects in the '13 draft class right now, although the scouts want to do some work on his quickness numbers.
Bray is part of the second-tier group of passers, but could still merit first-round consideration. Suffice it to say, there were plenty of calls this week about Ball's physical status after the assault incident.

*As suggested here last week, and emphasized several times in the offseason, the Denver brass likes left tackle Ryan Clady enough to have proposed to he and agent Pat Dye Jr. a five-year contract extension worth $10 million annually.
The Broncos, though, have been reluctant to go above that number, and have consistently noted that Clady's performance has fallen off the last couple seasons in their estimation, and tacitly hinted they don't consider the four-year veteran in the class of left tackles such as Jason Peters (Philadelphia, injured), Joe Thomas (Cleveland), and perhaps even Jake Long (Miami).
There may be some who feel that Long is more a right tackle playing on the left side, but the Broncos don't share that outlook. And so, as initially reported by The Denver Post, the Broncos and Dye have ended extension discussions for now.
That's not to say the two sides won't resume negotiations at some point, and certainly not to suggest the Broncos, if so forced, won't use the franchise designation to retain Clady next spring, when his contract lapses and he is eligible for free agency.
Despite the lack of an extension, the news isn't altogether dire for either of the sides. The Broncos will likely get another full season in which to evaluate Clady before making a decision next spring.
For his part, Clady gets a year with quarterback Peyton Manning, whose presence always cuts down on sacks and who elevates an offensive line, and is permitted to play in a system that will accentuate his strengths. And the Dolphins, at some point, likely will sign Long to a contract extension, which will lift the left tackle numbers for the elite pass blockers in the league.

*Former first-round right tackle Jeff Otah, who has failed the physical exams now of two teams in the past 10 days (the Jets and Panthers) and who was released by Carolina on Thursday, isn't ready to end his NFL career yet.
The Panthers' No. 1 pick in 2008, Otah is only 26 years old. Once regarded as a rising star, knee problems have limited Otah to only four appearances the past two seasons, and he finished each of the past three campaigns on injured reserve. But Otah, who was outstanding his first two seasons in the league before his left knee problems, will go to Ohio to work with former Cleveland and Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley, and feels he could be ready to return in the first month of the season.
That might be a tad optimistic, given the negative feedback he's gotten lately, but there are plenty of teams whose personnel directors have already made mental notes to check in with Bentley about Otah's progress under his tutelage.
"Bentley knows about knees, he'll shoot straight ... but the bottom line is that, if he can help get (Otah) healthy again, and I agree that's a big 'if,' someone can steal a big-time player for free," said one NFC pro scout. "For a talent like that, it's worth watching."

*A few notes on new Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, who will buy a controlling interest (70 percent) now, and assume the remaining 30 percent from Lerner at some point in the next four years: He will definitely bring aboard former Philadelphia president Joe Banner, one of the game's most astute administrators.
What that means for current team president Mike Holmgren, as was speculated in this space last week, is unknown, but probably can't be good.
While serving as a minority investor in the Steelers the past four years, Haslam wasn't exactly a high profile guy, but he learned well, from the Rooney Family, how to operate a team. And the Rooneys played a significant role in pitching Haslam to league officials, once he indicated an interest in taking a majority stake in a team.

*Punts: Third-year linebacker Daryl Washington, whose importance to the team was recently cited by general manager Rod Graves, isn't the only Arizona player under consideration for a contract extension.
The Cardinals have quietly begun extension talks with fourth-year veteran return man and special teams ace LaRod Stephens-Howling, and could make the former seventh-round pick one of the higher paid non-kicking special teams players in the league.
Stephens-Howling is signed to a one-year restricted tender at $1.927 million, and the Cardinals would like to lower that cap number with a multi-year deal. Not to mention being able to keep Stephens-Howlings, who has worked hard to make himself a vital part of the roster.
--Pittsburgh coaches are excited by the early work of Willie Colon, who is moving from right tackle to left guard on the team's revamped offensive line, in camp. But the team wants to see how Colon, who has essentially missed the past two seasons because of injuries, responds to all of the pulling and trapping and counter-blocking the Steelers' offense historically asks of the left guard.
And how well he gets downfield to lead screen passes that figure to be a bigger part of Haley's design. So far, while Colon has mauled people in camp in the move to a position many always felt could be his best spot, the running plays have mainly been.
More on the Pittsburgh line: The smart money so far is on veteran Max Starks, not second-round rookie Mike Adams, opening the season as the team's starting left tackle.
--There has been incremental progress on the talks aimed at finishing a contract extension for Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, but still a few rough spots with which to contend. One positive is that Ravens' vice president Pat Moriarty and agent Joe Linta have demonstrated a great deal of mutual respect. Discussions have been well based and avoided acrimony.
--There was nothing ulterior about the Eagles' acquisition this week of Indianapolis cornerback Kevin Thomas for a pair of linebackers who probably weren't going to make the Philadelphia roster anyway. Just chalk it up, one Philly assistant said, to the belief you can never have enough good corners, not to any unhappiness with the players at the position.
Thomas was a guy the Eagles liked in the 2010 draft, the former third-rounder has some starting experience, and he should fit well as a No. 4 option behind Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, and camp flash Curtis Marsh.
--Eagles special teams coordinator Bobby April, who promised the team's return game would be much better this season, is pumped by the performances of rookies Brandon Boykin (kickoffs) and Damaris Johnson (punts) so far.
--Houston coaches were impressed early on with third-round rookie guard Brandon Brooks, viewed as a steal despite not having attended the combine last February, but the former University of Ohio standout won't legitimately challenge for a starting job until he gets his weight better under control. The shortcoming has caused Brooks some problems with the heat in camp.
--The early results with Tim Tebow running the "Wildcat" offense for the Jets have been positive, but no one is suggesting the former Heisman Trophy winner will be anything more than a change-up quarterback, given his continuing lack of accuracy. Still, Tebow "presents a problem (for defenses)," acknowledged safety Yeremiah Bell. "I was in Miami when they had Pat White operating the (Wildcat) offense," Bell said. "The big thing with (White) was that he could add a throwing dimension, but he didn't. Tebow definitely can."
--Free agent tailback Cedric Benson remains prominent among the remaining unsigned veteran who could catch on with a team in the next few weeks of camp. But not until Benson lowers his salary expectations.
--The old camp adage that you can never have enough offensive linemen, basically because they sustain so many injuries in the summer, is becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy for some clubs. There are teams who are really poring over "ready" lists at the position to fill in because of injuries. Witness, the Cowboys working out guards Montrae Holland and Derrick Dockery and tackle Daniel Loper.

*The last word: "It's kind of like they took your friend and put him in solitary confinement." -- New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, per The NFL Network, on the season-long suspension of Saints' coach Sean Payton

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