A lot has been said and written about the steady improvement and promise of the Steelers offense toward the end of the 2013 season. Likewise, the decline and overhaul of a once fierce defense has received the lions share of attention this off-season.
However, as Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted on Saturday, the Steelers special teams play is in need of just as much improvement if they are to do better than another 8-8 season.
The unit is not without quality, Shaun Suisham was the model of consistency last season making 30 out of 32 field goal attempts, a completion percentage which puts him 3rd in the NFL. It's unfortunate however that those two misses essentially lost the game against Oakland last season.
The downside to Suisham' impressive accuracy is his comparatively weak leg, which means he does not kick touchbacks with any regularity, and you can forget about 50 yard field goals. Fittipaldo's "reliable, not spectacular" description is the most apt for Suisham.
Antonio Brown is one of the best return men in the league, in fact he was sent to the pro bowl for it. He had a 67 yard punt return TD against the Bengals which , even though it was very early on, effectively sealed the game.
Brown may be great, but absolutely no one is thrilled about the prospect of having the franchises second most valuable player back there fielding punts, more or less put on a platter for opposing teams to take their best shot.
Safety Robert Golden, perhaps known best for his inability to wrestle any significant snaps from other defensive backs on defense, is actually a bonafide special teams warrior. Pro football focus has him graded as the second best special teams player in the league, after notching 11 tackles in 2013. I have absolutely no idea what formula they use to come to that conclusion, but hey if it makes a Steeler look good then fair enough.
But for whatever positives the speacial teams unit has, they have as much or more negatives.
First of, all the punting was just atrocious. It was so bad at the start of the season that I distinctly remember smashing a brush to pieces when Matt Mcbriar shanked a punt in the end zone against the Lions. My room mate was unimpressed to say the least. The Steelers ranked 31st in punt average and net average last season. That's going to have to change.
Kick-off coverage is not a particular weak spot, but it is not a strength. The Steelers rank 12th in the league, and it's not as if they routinely allowed teams to rip off big returns. But the now infamous Jacoby Jones return on thanksgiving, and a narrowly avoided disaester in Green Bay (thanks to Shamarko Thomas) are reminders that kick-off coverage is by no means perfect. And because you know it's highly unlikely Suisham's going to be kicking a touchback, kick-off coverage is that bit more importat.
The punt coverage unit was literally as average as it can get, finishing 16th in the league.
But the most disapointing area, at least for myself, was the special teams performance on kick-off returns. They may have finished a respectable 15th in the league averaging 22 yards a return, but that doesn't tell the whole story.
Not once, and I mean not once did I look into the backfield on a kick-return and think "here we go, this could be something". My faith in the return unit was so utterly non existant that I was on my feet in astonishment if they got past the 20 yard line. And there were times you just knew, categorically knew that a big return could put the entire game on its head. I don't even mean getting a touchdown, just breaking one for a big gain , because that energizes the team, the fans and shortens the field drastically for the offense.
Felix Jones was woefully adequate and uninspiring as a returner, and it got to the point where even against my best judgement, I was occasionally screaming for Tomlin to stick AB back there, just to try make something happen.
Either Blount's their guy, or finding a dangerous return man who can be a threat to go the distance every time he gets an inch to breathe should be a priority for the Front Office on draft day. Splash plays and field position are just too important in today's NFL to have a pedestrian guy back there.
We seen in week 15 against the Bengals what happens when the Steelers execute in all three phases. They capitalised on a botched snap on a punt, as well as returning one of their own on the way to comftorbally beating the AFC North champions. Actually they more or less kicked their ass if I recall correctly.
Whether the Rooney's want to invest heavily in Robert Golden cloning research, or do it the old fashioned way via good coaching and drafting impact players, the Steelers special teams must improve along with everything else if they are to regain their foothold in the AFC.