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Re-evaluation of punter position is long overdue for Steelers

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After another inconsistent night from Jordan Berry against the Packers, it’s clear a conversation needs to take place about making a change at punter.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Pittsburgh Steelers Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Tomlin had a lot to sift through after the Pittsburgh Steelers lost their second game of the preseason to the Green Bay Packers by a score of 51-34, but it was interesting to note one of the issues he chose to highlight during his brief post-game press conference.

After listing several concerns from the game related to the offensive and defensive sides of the ball, it was something of a surprise to hear Tomlin question the performance of Jordan Berry. As he told the assembled reporters.

“I thought the punting wasn’t consistent enough”

While it would be fair to say that any criticism was well warranted, it’s not something we’ve heard very often in the past from Tomlin, even though it’s far from the first time this accusation could be leveled at the Steelers’ punter.

Despite one punt of 65 yards, Berry would end the night with a net average of just 31.8 yards from six punts. His first punt traveled only 30 yards before going out of bounds, giving the Packers the ball on Pittsburgh’s 40-yard line. His second boot was somewhat better, a 58-yarder that was returned 18 yards. The third punt was his 65-yard effort, but the 21-yard return that followed might not have happened if Berry hadn’t out-kicked the coverage team. Thankfully, that return was negated by a holding penalty, albeit one that only helped add a few more yards onto the end of the run.

His fourth punt only traveled 28 yards before going out of bounds and barely made it onto Green Bay’s half of the field, giving them the ball at their own 49-yard line. Berry’s fifth punt of the night might have been the best of the lot, a 56-yard effort with a hang-time of 4.97 seconds, according to the commentators. Unfortunately, the coverage was shockingly poor and a loss of outside containment resulted in a 41-yard return, helped by a pathetic attempt at a tackle by Berry allowing the punt-returner to gain an extra nine yards.

The last punt of the game was a 30-yard effort which was fair-caught at the Packers’ 14-yard line. In fairness, it wasn’t a terrible kick, but one that should have traveled at least another five yards to be considered decent.

With most teams in the league only having played one preseason game at the time of this writing, Berry’s net average of 33.7 yards through two games ranks him No. 43 out of 45 punters listed by NFL.com. An average of 43.6 yards on his kicks has him ranked 27th among his peers. Although punter Matt Wile was limited to kicking only field goals against the Packers, his 47.5-yard net average on two punts against the Philadelphia Eagles has him ranked second in the league.

A net average of 39.8 yards in 2017 for Berry during the regular season was good enough only to rank him 25th in the league last year, while an average length-of-kick of 43.2 yards was only better than one of the NFL’s starting punters. Berry was only marginally better in 2016 with a 40.2-yard net and 45.6-yard average, numbers that ranked 16th and 18th respectively. His debut season in 2015 was his worst, based on the numbers, after he recorded a net of 39.1-yards and an average of 42.6-yards, ranking him 25th and 32nd respectively.

If three years of watching Berry kick have taught us anything, it’s that inconsistency is the name of his game. Generally, he’s good for one or two decent punts per game, with the rest of his kicks in most contests typically being underwhelming. Directional punting has never been a strength of his game and it would be hard to argue that he helps his coverage team in most cases.

With Berry costing Pittsburgh $1.907 million against the cap this season, only 15 punters in the NFL take up more cap room than he will in 2018. And it would be fair to question how much value the Steelers are getting in return for their money. Wile would cost Pittsburgh just $555,000 in salary-cap space if they opted to keep him over Berry this year.

With two preseason games yet to play, it would seem sensible to give Wile a longer look at punter in the upcoming games. Bringing in some competition from outside the organization might not be a bad idea either. The final rounds of cuts across the league might yet place a viable alternative on the open market before the regular season begins, and it can only be hoped the Steelers will take a long, hard look any options that become available.

Either Berry needs to magically find the consistency that has eluded him the past three seasons — and quickly — or Pittsburgh needs to consider going in another direction at punter.