What a difference a year makes. No, I'm not talking about the Steelers' record. They were 6-2 a year ago as well. I'm referring to the vastly improved play of the special teams under the direction of new ST coach Al Everest.
Whatever Everest's earning this year, it's not enough. The long-time coach has already outperformed his contract in the first half of the 2010 season. When the Steelers won their sixth Lombardi Trophy in 2008, the special teams were hardly spectacular, but it's not exactly easy to put up gaudy numbers in the kick and punt return game when you're using Gary Russell and Mewelde Moore in roles usually delegated to big-play speed guys. They were however very sound with their coverage units, both kickoff and punt.
This year, the 'third phase' of the game for the Steelers has been vastly improved, and I salute Coach Mike Tomlin for following through on his promise to make special teams a priority this year. That commitment began last offseason in the draft, and it continued throughout the spring and summer in anticipation of the 2010 season. Give kudos to Tomlin for doing his part, but the real credit goes to Everest for not only coaching solid fundamentals, but also introducing some wrinkles to our ST units that have paid dividends. Across the board, the Steelers to-date ST statistics don't necessarily jump out at you. But Everest's units have chipped in multiple momentum-changing plays. By my count, those big plays are:
- 89-yard kickoff return for a TD by Antonio Brown in Week 2. And don't forget, it was a well-designed and executed reverse.
- Forced fumbles on kickoff return in Week 2 and Week 9
- Blocked punt setting up FG in Week 9
That's outstanding stuff, and exactly the type of contribution this team is giong to continue to need moving forward. One of the reasons the Steelers defense was so stout in '08 was because the kickoff coverage unit was outstanding. Football Outsiders' metrics ranked the Steelers' as the third best team covering kicks that year. Last year, conversely, the Steelers were dead last, and by a huge margin. In fact, the Steelers were perhaps the worst team in NFL history covering kickoffs in '09. This year, the Steelers are solid across the board, with punt returns being their weakest suit thus far.
In terms of traditional metrics, the Steelers stats and rankings are as follows:
Kickoff Returns: 27.3 yards/return (4th)
Punt Returns: 6.6 yards/return (27th)
Kickoff Returns Allowed:21.5 yards (7th)
Punt Returns Allowed: 9 yards/return (18th)
Great recipe for success for the Steelers. The kickoff return game is helping the offense, while the coverage units are not putting the defense in compromising situations like they did so frequently in '09. People often forget how bad we were in this regard, and just how much strain it put on the defense - perhaps more so than even losing a star like Troy Polamalu.
With the offensive line in disarray due to injuries, it sure would be nice if Emmanuel Sanders (or Antonio Brown) could provide another spark with a few big timely returns. I trust Tomlin's judgment in terms of not wanting to risk putting a rookie back on punt returns, but remember the lift Santonio Holmes gave us with his clutch punt returns against the Cowboys and Ravens in '08? The Steelers definitely don't win the Cowboys game without that lift, and the playoff win against the Ravens would have been a struggle as well. Getting a splash from the punt return game is less important though in my estimation than is continuing to cover kicks well, and giving the offense solid field position with above average kickoff returns.
Anyway, kudos to Tomlin for doing what he said he would do this offseason: fix the special teams. He's done that through the draft, and with his hiring of Al Everest, the highly-esteemed veteran ST coordinator formerly in San Francisco. If the trend continues for the second half of the season, I'd say Mr. Everest deserves a performance bonus, and a contract extension that pays him nicely. Because the job he's done so far is a big reason why the Steelers sit at 6-2 at the halfway mark.