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Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Primer - The Special Teams

With the Pittsburgh Steelers set to report to training camp on Friday, let's continue with our previews of the intriguing positional battles on both sides of the ball. This one doesn't focus on a specific offensive or defensive position, but instead on the collective play of the special teams, the third facet of the game that absolutely killed the Steelers' chances last year. Like the most recent primer about the defensive backs, this too is taken from the preseason publication I recently put together for MSP, which is available for purchase now for those who might be interested. As a bonus, Johnny S. has some information about last year's special teams play that I've included at the end of my writeup. I had originally asked him to help me gather some research about the performance of last year's ST units for the preseason publication, but ultimately was unable to use it. However, here's a good place to throw it in. Many thanks to him for the help!.  - Michael Bean -


Porous 4th quarter defense, injuries, costly turnovers, untimely sacks, inconsistent red zone efficiency - those are but a few of the reasons why the Steelers finished the 2009 season 9-7 and out of the playoffs for the first time in the Mike Tomlin era.

Poor special teams play was arguably the most debilitating and frustrating aspect of last season though. According to Football Outsiders' metrics, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the worst team covering kickoffs of any team since 1993, the first year FO began tracking ST performance. Traditional statistics confirm just how bad the Steelers were. Pittsburgh surrendered four kickoff return touchdowns, a ghastly number matched only by the 1998 Minnesota Vikings in the recent annals of NFL history. The Steelers were also dead last in starting field position for the opposition (31.3 yard line) last season.

It's not clear whether or not the Steelers struggled on special teams coverage units due to a lack of preparation or from relying too heavily on so many inexperienced young players. What we do know, however, is that Coach Tomlin is serious about not letting the same thing happen again this year. Tomlin fired special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky at season's end and replaced him with veteran ST coordinator Al Everest, a 13-year NFL coaching veteran who has spent the past three seasons in San Francisco. Everest has his work cut out for him shoring up kickoff coverage and punt return coverage, an area where the Steelers also struggled last season.

The good news is the Steelers have plenty of capable athletes to get the job done. Pittsburgh drafted three players with intriguing upside as head hunters on coverage units- Jason Worilds (2nd round), Thaddeus Gibson (4th) and Stevenson Sylvester (5th). If any of the three rooks hopes to earn a helmet for the bulk of the 2010 season, they better get ready to impress early and often on coverage units in camp and during the early stages of the preseason slate of games. Then there's the slew of young defensive backs (Keenan Lewis, Joe Burnett, William Gay) who should be hungry to contribute on special teams now that Bryant McFadden has returned and will most likely be named the second starter at cornerback. Free agent acquisition Arnez Battle has special teams experience and acumen as well from the wide receiver position, and could very well cement his spot on the 53-man roster with sound ST play during training camp and the preseason.

The Steelers fared better returning kicks and punts than they did covering them. Return specialist Stefan Logan earned a job and legions of new fans with his monstrous preseason performance last year, but he unfortunately couldn't quite recreate the same magic during the regular season. The former CFL running back averaged a respectable 26.7 yards per kick return and a pedestrian 9.7 yards per punt return. By season's end, he had set the Steelers single season record for most kickoff return yards in a season. But while watching opposing returners dance in the endzone after a long return, many Steelers yearned for the same game changing plays from their own return man.

There's a certain segment of the fanbase who is quick to remind Logan detractors that he's essentially Joshua Cribbs when compared to Carey Davis, Gary Russell and Najeh Davenport - the team's primary kickoff returners in '07 and '08. Others, myself included, would rather a precious roster spot be used on somebody who did more than just return kicks and punts at an above average, but not elite level.

Potential competitors for Logan's duties include rookie wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, and perhaps Burnett. Antwaan Randle El and Mewelde Moore can obviously be trusted to handle punt return duties on short notice. There's always the possibility that a no-name emerges to win the job just like Logan did a year ago.

In the kicking game, the Steelers welcome back kicker Jeff Reed and punter Daniel Sepulveda. The Steelers used the Franchise Tag on Reed during free agency, but were hard at work trying to hammer out the details of a long-term extension with the eccentric but reliable kicker. As of June 1st, a deal had not yet been finalized. Regardless, Reed returns for his eighth season with the team in 2010 after converting 27 of 31 field goal attempts last season. As unfair as it may be considering how solid Reed was for most of the year, his '09 season will mostly be remembered by his two missed FGs in the 4th quarter of Pittsburgh's Week 2 loss to the Chicago Bears. Steeler Nation is probably more concerned about Reed's propensity to party than his reliability kicking field goals, but many of us would still like to see Reed improve his kickoffs (not likely at this stage in his career) and his tackling prowess in emergency situations (remember his matador routine on Percy Harvin?).

After having endured a long season of Mitch Berger's low, line-drive punts, Steelers fans welcomed back Daniel Sepulveda from knee surgery with open arms. There was really nothing notable at all about Sepulveda's '09 season though. He was middle of the pack or lower in yards per punt, net yards per punt and average return yards allowed. Hopefully Sepulveda, like the rest of his teammates on special teams units, will elevate his game in 2010.


From Johnny S.

Kick Returns Against

Just a note before I start this. I expected these numbers to be really awful at the beginning of the year and then better towards the end. After looking through them quite a bit, it seems that it was about 4 or 5 really bad games that made the Steelers ST as bad as it was. Coincidentally (or not at all) it was at the middle of the year where we started losing. However, 2 of our worst games came against teams we beat, the Browns (1st game) and Vikings. Granted we should have blown out the Browns and we got some great defensive help to beat the Vikings. The ST definitely made those games worse than they should have been.

Anyway, ST had only 4 games where they allowed more yards per return than their season average, the two aforementioned games and the 2nd Bengals game and the KC game. Furthermore, only 7 teams had a higher return average against us compared to their season average. And in 3 of those that average was only 3 yards per return better. In the 4 "bad" games the averages were all 10 yards per return worse, including 19.3 yards per return worse in the 2nd Cinci game.


  • 1795 yards yielded (27th in the NFL)

    • Compare to 1357 in 2008, 10th in the NFL

    • That 1795 is the most KO return yards the Steelers have ever given up in a season

  • 24.3 Y/Rt (26th)

    • Compare to 19.1 in 2008, 1st in the NFL

    • The last time the Steelers gave up more than 23 yards per return per game was in 1986, where they also gave up 24.3 yards per game and let up 3 TDs. Those two years are the worst yr/rt that the Steelers have ever had.

    • The last time the Steelers were in the bottom 10 (in yards per KO return) was in 1994, where they gave up 22.5 per return (27th)

  • The poor ST peaked right before the Steelers added Anthony Madison (joined week 13); the season average was at it's worst in week 11 (27.9) and week 12 (27.4) where it was easily in last place by about 3 yards per return

    • The worst team in the league finished with a 25.7 yards per return

    • So the average yds per return with Madison was 19.3 (that avg would have put us in the top 3) and without was 27.4 (woulda made us dead last by a good margin)

      • Only 3 teams have finished a season with a 27.0 yards per return in the last decade

      • How'd those 3 teams do you ask? 2007 Rams 3-13, 2006 Raiders 2-14, 2005 Arizona Cardinals 5-12. Thank goodness we got Madison, eh?

  • Jeff Reed has a weak leg

    • Had only 3 touchbacks on KOs, the least in the league (one came on a penalty where he kicked from the 30)

  • 4 TDs yielded, no other team had more than 2 (2 teams with 2 Jets and Chiefs)

    • Only 4 teams gave up 3 or more in the last decade, Steelers being the only team to give up 4

    • Last time a team gave up 4 KO return TDs was in 1998 by the Vikings. Those are the only two times in the SB era that has ever happened.

      • Funnily enough, that Vikings team went 15-1, but that was the year Randy Moss and Randall Cunningham could not be stopped. However, ultimately their poor ST was the reason they lost to Atlanta early in the post season.

    • The last time the Steelers gave up more than 2 KO returns was in 1986.

  • There were 8 games where we gave up 100 or more yards, 5 with 150 or more. Actually gave up 200 in a game.

    • The 200 yard game was to Cinci's Bernard Scott, 206yard on 5 returns, 41.2 average

    • Only 3 other guys had 200 yard KO return games last year. Domenik Hixon, Ted Ginn Jr., and Joshua Cribbs.

  • 4 teams finished 10+ yards per return over their season average against the Steelers

  • Inconsistency - the Steelers seemed to give up one bad return per game

    • In 11 of 16 games the Steelers gave up a KO return of 30 or more yards

    • 6 of 16 games they gave up a return of 40 or more yards (7 if you count Cribbs 55 yard punt return)

    • 4 of 16 games they gave up an 88 yard or more return.


Punt Returns Against

The punt coverage was actually not that bad on the year. Well, lets say it was more consistently good than it was bad. It just had bad games against Cribbs, Royal,

And Chris Carr (Bal).



Previous Primers (Offense)

Tight Ends, Quarterbacks , Running Backs, Wide Receivers

Previous Primers (Defense)*

Linebackers, Defensive Line, Defensive Backs

* (thank you NYSteelersFan4 for the unexpected but outstanding help)