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|02-22-2015, 09:05 AM||#1|
The Virginia Hillbilly
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Special teams, special problems for Steelers
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There is ample evidence that suggests Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and head coach Mike Tomlin take special teams seriously. While other coaches are hesitant to use their best players on special teams, Tomlin continues to use Pro Bowl receiver Antonio Brown as his punt returner. Colbert invested a third-round draft choice in Dri Archer last spring to help the return game, and he had the foresight to sign his consistent place kicker to an affordable five-year contract extension before the season.
Those are moves that point to the Steelers understanding the importance of special teams. But for all the effort they put forth last offseason, the on-field results disappointed again in 2014. Other than the continued excellence of kicker Shaun Suisham, nothing Colbert or Tomlin did to address the problems on special teams helped very much.
The Steelers have had a revolving door at punter for years and rookie Brad Wing did little to distinguish himself from the previous ones. Wing was the team's fifth punter in the past four seasons and, like the others, he ranked near the bottom of the league's statistics for yards and net yards.
Wing was 28th in the league in punt average (43.0) and 25th in net average (38.2). His 25-yard shank late in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay was one of the biggest reasons the Steelers lost that game to the lowly Buccaneers.
The only good news for Wing was the punt unit did a decent job covering his punts. The Steelers ranked 12th in the league in punt-return average, yielding 8.1 yards per return.
Wing's performance did little to help a rebuilding defense, and the Steelers will stage the latest in their series of annual punting competitions this summer in Latrobe. Richie Leone, who was one of the top punting prospects to come out of the college ranks last season, was signed to a futures contract last month. Leone was in Baltimore's training camp last summer but could not unseat veteran Sam Koch.
Archer was drafted with the hope that he could jumpstart a stagnant kickoff return unit, but he failed so miserably that Tomlin had to bench him and handed the duties off to second-year receiver Markus Wheaton.
There were 202 players who returned at least one kickoff in the NFL last season. Archer's 17.9-yard average on nine returns was last in the league among those who attempted more than five returns.
Wheaton was better with a 24.7 average, but even with the modest improvement he supplied, the Steelers were 26th in the league in kickoff return yardage (21.7 yards per return).
Brown remains among the best punt returners in the league, but he became less dangerous in 2014. After ranking fourth in the NFL in punt return average in 2013, Brown slipped to eighth in the league last season with a 10.6 average.
The drop-off from the return units, along with a below-average season from the defense, meant the Steelers' offense constantly had bad field position to overcome. According to Football Outsiders, the average starting field position for the Steelers was at the 25.2 yard-line, which was the third-worst in the league.
Thanks to the historic season Ben Roethlisberger enjoyed (he led the league in yards per drive), the Steelers were able to overcome that bad field position on more than a few occasions. With a little bit of help from the return teams in 2015, the offense has a chance to be better.
One of the few bright spots for the special teams was Suisham, who has been among the best place kickers in the game since the Steelers pulled him off the scrap heap in the middle of the 2010 season. Suisham ranked fourth in the league in field-goal accuracy, making 29 of his 32 attempts. Two of his three misses came from longer than 50 yards.
In Suisham, the Steelers know they have a place kicker who can deliver in the clutch. He has made seven game-winning field goals with the Steelers, including a 41-yarder as time expired in the opening game of the season against the Browns.
Suisham has converted 30 consecutive field goals between 40 and 49 yards, the longest active streak in the NFL at that distance. Since joining the Steelers in 2010, he has made 88.1 percent of his field goal attempts, which is the top percentage in franchise history. Colbert signed Suisham to a contract extension last summer at an affordable $2.5 million per season through 2018.
Other positive contributors on special teams included Shamarko Thomas, Terence Garvin, Ross Ventrone and Robert Golden. But the Steelers need more. They need more from their punter. They need more from their return game. They need more from their coverage units.
It's up to Smith, who is entering his third season with the Steelers, to figure out how. History suggests this is an important year for him.
Smith is the fourth special teams coach under Tomlin, who previously fired Bob Ligaskesky (after three years) and Al Everest (after two years). Amos Jones, who succeeded Everest, left in 2013 after one season to work in the same capacity under Bruce Arians in Arizona.
|02-22-2015, 10:57 AM||#2|
Join Date: Jan 2012
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Re: Special teams, special problems for Steelers
Koch is a helluva punter for the Ravens......hopefully Harbitches eye for special teams talent extends to Leone.
It shouldn't be too hard to out-punt Wing.
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|02-22-2015, 01:51 PM||#3|
Join Date: Jul 2005
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Re: Special teams, special problems for Steelers
Maybe a little more time actually working on the special teams blocking units would be useful. Both the KO and Punt return units suck. It's no wonder Archer stunk, let me rephrase that, his return statistics stunk....
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