Monday, March 31, 2014

Ray Fittipaldo Nails It: Lousy Special Teams Cost the Steelers in 2013

Antonio Brown, out of bounds
Fans who watched the Steelers in 2013 remember the frustration and dismay we all felt over continuously poor field position on both sides of the ball.

The Steelers' punters were, for the most part, abysmal. They rarely flipped the field. It seemed the opponents' offense was always starting possessions after punts near mid-field.

Meanwhile, because the Steelers' own kick-return game (on kickoffs and punt alike) was so lousy, the Steelers' offense always seemed to be starting on about their own 20-yard line.

Jacoby Jones
Special teams put the Steelers in a hole all season. Then, for every rare positive big play the Steelers made on special teams, it seemed they would allow a negative one on the other side. The Jacoby Jones kick return in the pivotal loss to Baltimore is Exhibit 1 in that department.

The Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldi documents all these woes, and more, in excruciating but compelling detail in an excellent article that you can read here.  The photo accompanying the article shows the infamous "everything-but-the-Stanford band" kickoff return at the end of the Miami loss, when Antonio Brown veered barely out of bounds with the left half of his left foot on the sideline white stripe. If not for that gaffe, the Steelers would have made the playoffs, although it's not likely they would have gone far. The caption for that photo ironically points out that Brown and kicker Shaun Suisham were the two bright spots on special teams.

While both were mostly very good, Fittipaldi notes they also had major flaws. Brown made too many fair catches on returnable punts. Suisham missed two crucial field goals that may have won the Oakland game. Worse, and this has been the big flaw in Suisham's game all along, his kickoffs don't go deep.

If you remember when the Steelers came out of training camp last August-September, they made a series of roster moves that continued through the 0-4 start to the season.  In the week between the final pre-season game and Game 1 of the regular season, the Steelers made five roster moves. This sort of maneuvering continued. Players were waived or added. Others were moved to and from the practice squad. In 2013, the Steelers had a roster of between 20-30 percent new players.  They weren't ready to start the season. And the result was an 0-4 start that buried them.

You'd think Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin would know better. This year, let's hope they give special teams their due. Coaches always blather about the importance of special teams and how they are "one-third of the game," but then special teams get treated as an afterthought. Punters and kickers are disparaged as not being "real" football players.

The reality is, huge chunks of field position can change on any kick or punt.  Kickers and punters are absolutely crucial, as are returners, gunners and other specialty players. For the Steelers, there is ample room for improvement.

One footnote: When the Steelers signed punter Brad Wing early this off-season, Joey Porter's Pit Bulls wrote a lengthy, researched post that got lost in Blogger-space somehow and was never posted. We'll try to recreate it at some point. Wing has an interesting story, and we have cautious, tentative hope that he will seize the job and make a difference. Wing has potential to be the best punter the Steelers have had in a long time.

Bigger picture, there is room for improvement in all phases of the special teams, as Fittipaldi painstaking explains in his excellent article. It's worth reading.

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