The best rivalry in the NFL will write new chapters again this season after a split in 2013. One representative from each community, Steeler Fever for Behind The Steel Curtain and Mr MaLor from Baltimore Beatdown will hash out comparisons between both teams.
A Malor/Fever Joint Production
Steeler Fever: Expect the Steelers to have one of the better special teams units in the National Football League this season. The unit showed marked improvement last year under the leadership of native son, coach Danny Smith, who made a 2013 return to Pittsburgh with over 15 seasons of NFL experience coaching special teams.
Looking back to last season, penalties were down, execution was improved and if an opponent’s returner should get past the first and second waves of coverage, head coach, Mike Tomlin could be counted on to Two-Step his way onto the field allowing the third wave to arrive and prevent the touch down.
Looking ahead to the 2014 season, the Steelers have one of the leagues most reliable field goal kickers in Shaun Suisham aka the kickin canuck aka sweet cheeks. He doesn’t possess the strength of leg to consistently kick the ball out of the end-zone on kick offs and field goals over 52 yards usually fail to reach the cross bar, but 50 yards and in, Shaun is incredibly accurate even at Heinz Field, which is a notoriously difficult place to kick field goals.
The Steelers have an experienced and pro bowl quality punt returner in Antonio Brown who is looking to pass the torch to one of the young up and comers on the team, perhaps second year player, wide receiver Justin Brown, who did very well returning punts in college at both Oklahoma and Penn State.
Dri Archer is right on target to run away with the kick returner duties with 4.26 speed. This kid brings a dynamic that the Steelers haven’t had since Rod Woodson, a kick returner that can break one for a TD every time he is able to receive the kick off. Get ready for some electrifying plays from this young man, with the level of inclusion he will have in the offense, I doubt the Steelers will have him returning both kicks and punts, though it is possible, despite the fact he didn't return punts at Kent State.
The role of punter is still to be determined in the pre-season battle between Louisiana State University star punter Brad Wing and veteran Adam Podlesh. Graduating in 2012, Brad Wing is known for a strong, accurate leg with good hang time, averaging 44.6 yard per punt with few attempted returns during his last two seasons for LSU. Adam Podlesh struggled mightily with the Bears last season, from BTSC editor Neal Coolong: "Podlesh was 33rd in the NFL with a gross average of 40.6 yards per punt, and Chicago's punt coverage unit was last in the NFL with a 40-yard average. Pittsburgh was second-to-last, leading only Podlesh's Bears." My early prediction is Brad Wing winning the job and solidifying the position for years to come.
Mr Malor: Anytime that you have a former special teams coach as your head coach, you have high expectations for being one of the best special teams groups across the National Football League. Luckily for Baltimore, that has been the case over the years and not just in particular areas, but across the board on all fronts of the special teams. John Harbaugh has put a ton of trust and faith into now 7th year special teams coach Jerry Rosburg to lead the way, and it seems that Harbugh couldn’t be any happier given some of the accomplishments Rosburg’s players have had over the years.
In 2013, the special teams for Baltimore was maybe the brightest spot for a team that struggled throughout the year to finish with a disappointing 8-8 record and short of a 6th straight post season berth. Whether it was kick returns, field goals, punt returns or coverage, the unit could always be counted on to make a play when needed.
In Baltimore, special teams begins and ends with two names. Justin Tucker and Jacoby Jones. These two have become every Ravens fan’s favorite player at some point in time for not only their quirky ways they go about their lives, but for that fact that they are arguably the best at what they do in the NFL. Tucker was once an undrafted rookie that was relied upon to kick Baltimore to a Superbowl. For someone that young and untested to do what he did during that Superbowl season is remarkable. And Tucker only built on that, leading the league in field goals by going an amazing 38/41 with deadly range outside of 50 yards where he made 6 of 7 attempts. There were times in 2013 where literally Tucker’s leg was the only thing we had going for us, as evident by the 18-16 victory of the Detroit Lions on MNF where the 2nd year All-Pro was relied upon to make a 61 yard kick with seconds remaining and down by 1 point. That kick kept Baltimore’s playoff hopes alive for the moment. The expectations for yet another brilliant season from Tucker should all be met in 2014.
Then there is the one and only Jacoby Jones. Not only is the veteran WR a threat to take a deep pass to the endzone at any given time, but he has shown he can take a kick or punt to the house at any moment you give him the chance. Baltimore finished 2nd in kick return average last year with 26.4 yards per return and 2nd in punt return average with 14.2 yards per return. Add in 2 TD’s as well, and it was one of the most dangerous units in the league. Barring an injury, Baltimore has their KR and PR locked up for quite some time, and should be as dangerous as ever in 2014.
Where the questions on special teams start to come into play is at the punter position. While Sam Koch has been one of the better punters in the league since being drafted by Baltimore in 2006, last season was a bit of a down year. Finishing 22nd in Net Yards was a bit of a disappointment, and 9 touchbacks tied a career high. Baltimore has brought in undrafted rookie, Richie Leone, from The University of Houston to put some heat on Koch, and with a salary cap figure of $2.8 million in 2014, the pressure is on Koch to have a very good training camp. The likelihood of Koch being released is not very big though, as he is a very important piece in what is known as "The Three Man Wolfpack" in Baltimore consisting of kicker Justin Tucker, punter Sam Koch and long snapper Morgan Cox. This group takes a lot of pride in their job and is one of the best in the league which the numbers prove. Keeping that unit together will be important for a team that is still slightly in transition.
Advantage: Baltimore Ravens