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Did Special Teams Improve in 2007?

We had several downfalls in 2007: the play of the offensive line, the inability to run out the clock and finish drives with the running game, and poor special teams play in untimely situations.

When Mike Tomlin arrived in Pittsburgh, he stressed over and over again that improving the play of the special teams was a huge priority.  Bob Ligashesky was hired to help improve a 2006 unit that finished 30th in the league in 2006, as measured by Football Outsider's DVOA metrics. Honestly, I'm not sure why Legashesky was identified as the guy for the job. On the one hand, he is from Western PA and grew up attending games at Three Rivers Stadium. It's never a bad idea to hire natives, but Ligashesky's credentials weren't particularly stellar prior to arriving in Pittsburgh. He struggled in St. Louis to field elite special teams units. Actually, they were downright putrid, finishing 2005 and 2006  with the 31st ranked special teams department. And in 2004, when he was with the Jacksonville Jaguars, his units finished the year in the bottom half of the league at #17.

So, did Ligashesky help our special teams play improve? Well, kind of. Based on FO's metrics, the Steelers improved in 2007, finishing the year ranked 21st in DVOA.  Their score was a  - 2.8% meaning they underperformed slightly from what the league average would be expected to do against similar opponents in similar situtations. For Football Outsider's explanation of their metrics, take a minute to read this, particularly the part towards the bottom about how they work with special teams statistics.

Let's take a look at how the Steelers fared in various aspects of the special teams department, beginning with...

FG/XP: Our special teams ranking would have been substantially lower if not for the stellar 2007 performance turned in by Jeff Reed. 23/25 FGs, a perfect 44/44 on XPs and according to Football Outsiders, many of these kicks weren't gimmes. Our FG/XP score of +6.9% means that Reed was significantly better than what could have been expected from other kickers around the league in similar situations (read: from the various distances, stadiums, and conditions that Reed was so successful in). Only the Titans and Pro-Bowl kicker Rob Bironas had a higher score (+8.7%).  Kudos to Jeff Reed on a fine year.

Kickoffs: Ah, here's where we struggled. Bigtime. The Maurice Jones Drew kickoff return in the playoffs, the Joshua Cribbs return for a TD, and the list goes on. We were bad in kickoff coverage, and we simply have to improve in order to help our defense out AND not surrender poor field position for our offense when we get the ball back.  Our Kickoff score of -7.5% was the 5th worst in the league. Things got so bad that we resorted to pooch kicking the ball towards the end of the season. Unacceptable if you ask me.

Kick Returns:  We actually fared a bit better on kick returns that I had initially thought. Our score of + 0.3% means we were basically average. I thought we were worse than average, and in reality we were. Rossum's 98 yard return to the house against San Francisco helped our cause a bit and it came in a game where we were never really in danger of losing. Rossum finished the year with a 23.3 yards per return average, the 23rd best average in the league. This is an area where we can be more consistent and explosive in 2008. While not terrible, we too often asked our offense to take it the distance from about our own 30 yard line.

Punting: I wrote a piece about Sepulveda yesterday, essentially saying he was just fine, nothing spectacular and nothing awful. Well, our score of +1.1% in the punting game confirms that assertion. However, as is explained by FO, the punting game gives more weight to punts that aren't returned, and as I mentioned yesterday, Sepulveda did a nice job pooching the ball inside the 20 where punts are often fair-caught or not touched at all. Also, even though we had a few major snafus in the punt coverage game - particularly against Jacksonville and against the New York Jets - it wasn't as bad as kickoff coverage for the majority of the year. I don't think anybody could really point to the punting game as the source of our problems. Instead, they might point to....

Punt Returns:  Here's where we fared the worst. Our score of - 10.6% was the second worst mark in the league. Rossum had a patheticly paltry 6.4 yards per return in 2007. Mewelde Moore, by contrast, has a career average of 10.4 yards per return. That figure would have been good for 5th best in the league by the traditional yards per return metric, so color me excited to have Moore back there fielding punts in 2008.

Conclusions: Well, it's pretty simple. We stunk in kickoff return coverage and in punt returns, were so-so in punting, kickoff returns and punt return coverage, and phenomenal in our FG game. If you subtract Reed's fine season, we're looking at one of the worst ST units in football. As is, we're in the bottom third. More to come on what changes we might see as training camp battles shake out, but for now, it's clear we have plenty of room AND need for improvement.