This will be a numbers-heavy post, so please bear with me, folks. So far this season, the Steelers have kicked off to the opposition 44 times. We all know that 3 of those have gone for touchdowns, one of which was arguably the deciding factor in yesterday's contest. What I didn't know until I compiled the numbers this evening is that over those 44 kickoffs, the average starting position for the other team is their 33.36 yard line - almost 15 more yards than a touchback. (counting a TD as a return to the PIT 0 yard line) Obviously, something has to be done to fix the problem - not just the touchdowns, but all the free yards opponents are getting.
So, what can be done? A touchback is the safest way to handle a conventional kick-off, but the Steelers are extremely unlikely to switch kickers mid-season. There was an important keyword in the last sentence - conventional. I believe that the perfect storm exists for a radical shift in tactics. According to this post from the excellent Advanced NFL Stats blog, the recovery rate for unexpected onside kicks is around 60%. Given that the other team is already taking it back to around the 33-34 yard line, why not spot them 25 or so yards for a good chance at getting the ball right back? The Steelers' excellent defense is already built around keeping things in front of them, giving up the dink and dunk, and stiffening in the red zone - following this tactic would keep the defense off the field longer, and therefore keep them fresh to unleash whatever mayhem LeBeau has schemed up.
Of course, the major problem with this theory is that the recovery rate falls dramatically when an on-side kick is expected - to 20% or so. As soon as the Steelers became known for kicking onsides, the opposition would stick their "hands" team out for every kick-off, and so much for that strategy, right? However, this isn't a bad thing either - if the hands team is in, presumably the good blockers that are helping spring long returns are out, and it's safer to kick deep. The choice of how to kick can even be situational, depending on what personnel the other team is fielding. In addition, time spent by the other team practicing recovering onside kicks is time they haven't spent on the rest of their game-plan.
I'm not saying that this would be great for every team and situation - a team with a great kickoff coverage unit, a monster kicker (or kickoff specialist) and a weak defense would be ill-advised to follow this plan. However, I do think that kicking onsides anywhere from once to several times a game could have a salutary effect on our chances of winning. What do you think?