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AFC Championship Game Preview: Steelers Lost Field Position Battle In Regular Season Loss to Jets

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A huge Steeler Nation salute to first-year special teams coach Al Everest for the work he's done helping transform the Pittsburgh special teams from one of the worst in the NFL last year, to a group that fared well in just about every phase of STs in 2010. After two solid months to start the year, I wrote that Everest was already deserving of a raise, as the improvements covering kickoffs played a big role in why the team got off to a solid start despite missing their franchise quarterback for the first quarter of the season. The Steelers finished with an overall ST DVOA ranking of 16th this year; last year they were 30th.  The biggest difference has been the vast improvement covering kickoffs. In '09, the Steelers were historically bad. Like, maybe the worst in NFL history, and definitely the worst ever through the first three months of a season.

This year they've been much better, though they're still in the bottom third of the league according to FO's DVOA metrics. By traditional yards per return allowed though, the Steelers finished 5th at an even 20 yards per kickoff return. Frankly, those FO metrics don't tell the whole story of how much better they've been. Considering the lack of booming kickoffs by Jeff Reed and Sean Suisham, I'd say they've done just dandy.

However, Pittsburgh's final special teams stats would have been even better if not for a collectively poor performance against the New York Jets in Week 15. The Steelers allowed a TD on the game's opening return, which I took a closer look at yesterday.  The ST shortcomings didn't end there unfortunately. Pittsburgh didn't punt the ball well, and they were unable to make a big splash play of their own in the return game. Let's take a closer look at just how decisively New York won the third phase of the game that day, and how it played an integral role in the Jets leaving Heinz Field with an important December road win.

Average starting field position

Steelers: 22 yard line

Jets: 30 yard line

 

Drives started from inside own 20

Steelers: 3

Jets: 0

 

Punting stats

Steve Weatherford : 4 punts, 36.8 average, 3 downed inside 20, long 52

Jeremy Kapinos: 4 punts, 38 average, 0 downed inside 20, long 44

  • Since I gave Kapinos some love in a recent column, I don't feel too bad when I say that he was not good at all against the Jets. Kapinos had three opportunities to pin the Jets deep inside their own 5-10 yard line. The first was a 4th-and-2 from the Jets 45 in the 1st quarter; the second came on the Steelers very next possession on a 4th and 2 from the Jets 34; and finally, the last came on a 4th-and-8 from the PIT 41 with about 7 minutes in the fourth quarter and the Jets up by 3. Kapinos whiffed on all three attempts. The first two were definitely hard to stomach...total chip shots. The third was a tougher situation to pin deep, but in that instance, the Steelers needed a clutch punt and didn't get it. The Jets started from the 24 yard line rather than pinned deep. The difference in field position there was huge, as the Jets were able to pick up a few first downs and then pin Pittsburgh inside its own 5 yard line with not much time remaining. That difference in field position led to the safety that made a last-minute comeback harder to achieve. After the game, I wondered why Coach Tomlin was not more aggressive and not go for at least one of those fourth-and-short situations inside New York territory. But I suppose if Kapinos had executed like Tomlin expected him to, hindsight would have been different.

 

Kickoff Returns

Steelers: 5 returns, 72 total yards, 14.4 average

Jets: 5 returns, 145 total yards, 29 average, 1 TD

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    • Obviously Brad Smith's 97-yard TD return to start the game was a huge difference maker in the outcome. That's actually a fairly low average for NY considering they took one to the house, but A. Cromartie's -6 yard return following the fourth quarter safety certainly hurt the average.
    • As for the Steelers....well, not a good day returning kickoffs for Antonio Brown (M. Moore had one ho-hum return as well). Yards and points may be hard to come by on Sunday, so it's imperative to bring that return average up closer to the team's season average of 23.5 yards/return.