Among the chaos which is a NFL training camp and preseason, fans can become perturbed by many issues. Most surround issues regarding the offense or defense, but in the case of the Pittsburgh Steelers there is always an extra amount of angst reserved for the special teams units. After all, since 2013 the Steelers have struggled in special teams by giving up costly returns, and making costly mistakes.
It is early in the 2015 preseason, and many fans are already harping on special teams coach Danny Smith and his unit's inability to make plays in the kicking game. Tough to disagree after the Steelers surrendered 3 punt returns for 47 yards, and 5 kickoff returns for a staggering 127 yards against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Friday night. Pretty poor numbers regardless of preseason or regular season.
However, if you look closer you should know there are some caveats to the team's special teams in the preseason. The most obvious is the personnel being utilized on a regular basis. In the regular season, players like Will Johnson, Vince Williams, Terence Garvin, Ross Ventrone and Robert Golden are the ones flying down the field on kicking units to make plays. In the preseason? You are looking at the likes of Roosevelt Nix, Jesse James, Sammie Coates and C.J. Goodwin trying to duplicate such success.
These guys are football players, and have been for quite some time, but the reality of the situation is most haven't played a snap of special teams since their High School days, or maybe even before. To be overly concerned about the special teams units this early in the preseason with a 90-man roster is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction when you look at the players at Smith's disposal.
One extremely unique angle of special teams worth keeping an eye on this preseason is the kicking game. Everyone knows about the injury which has sidelined Shaun Suisham for the entire 2015 season, but with newly signed kicker Garrett Hartley, his kickoffs will, and should be, highly scrutinized.
Hartley has a decent leg in regards to field goals, his long being a 55-yard field goal, but in terms of kickoffs he leaves much to be desired. In his first game action with the Steelers Friday he had 5 kickoffs, 4 of which reached the endzone and none resulted in a touchback. Compare that to his counterpart Josh Scobee who also had 5 kickoffs, all of which reached the endzone for touchbacks.
Want to prevent big returns in the return game? Don't allow them to return the ball.
There is a strong chance Hartley was told by head coach Mike Tomlin or coach Smith to keep the kickoffs in play to better analyze the players they are utilizing on special teams. After all, sometimes evaluation of special teams play results in a spot on the 53-man roster or a player being unemployed come September, and you can't evaluate players by simply watching them jogging down the field for a touchback. However, it will be interesting to watch as the preseason rolls on whether Hartley will eventually show enough distance to have opponent's drives start at the 20-yard line, compared to a return well past the 30.
Special teams play in the preseason is difficult to gauge, and for the Steelers it has been downright horrid so far. Nonetheless, until you see the regulars in the lineup making similar gaffes, let's hold off on pushing the panic button just yet.