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Steelers’ struggles in the kicking game continue against the Chiefs

Several poor punts and more missed kicks were just a few of the issues that plagued the Steelers’ special teams on Sunday.

Wild Card Round - Pittsburgh Steelers v Cincinnati Bengals Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

While there will be more than enough column inches devoted to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ issues on defense in the coming days, their problems on special teams are clearly deserving of some attention too. Short punts, penalties and poor coverage cost Pittsburgh field position once again and two missed kicks kept four points off of the board in a game the Steelers lost by five.

The struggles of Jordan Berry have been evident to anyone paying attention to his play ever since he entered the league. But it feels as if his steady, annual regression is more obvious in 2018. His preseason wasn’t impressive, earning him some criticism from Mike Tomlin after the game against the Green Bay Packers, and the needle has been pointing downward ever since.

Five punts for a gross average of 46.4 yards might not seem horrible on the face of it, but the 31.6-yard net average they yielded absolutely is. When you consider Berry had one great punt on the day for 59 yards with no return that rolled out on the Chiefs 1-yard line, it highlights just how bad the rest of his kicks really were.

As much as Berry has had his supporters on social media using flawed logic to defend his errant punts, many in the crowd at Heinz Field were quite vocal in their displeasure after each poor kick.

In reality, Berry was far from doing what the coaching staff had told him to do. More likely, his deficiencies as a punter have become so obvious to other teams that they are scheming to take advantage of his mistakes. Former Indianapolis Colts All-Pro and Pro Bowl punter Pat McAfee provided an excellent analysis of the problems Berry is creating for the Steelers with his wayward style, explaining some of the issues perfectly.

Warning, in typical McAfee style, this is not safe for family viewing and contains some profanity.

Speaking to the media after the game, Tomlin made a point of calling out both of his kickers, but it remains to be seen what changes are made in the coming weeks.

“We’re not playing well in the kicking game. We’ve missed a couple of kicks here in recent weeks and we’re not punting with varsity like consistency, so we’ve got some work ahead of us and we’ll get started here in preparation for our next performance.”

The coaching staff had a chance to replace Berry in the preseason, but opted to stick with the incumbent and watch Matt Wile sign the Minnesota Vikings the second he was released instead. This despite Wile outperforming Berry in the few opportunities he was given during preseason. It would be fair to note, however, that Wile has hardly set the world on fire with the Vikings, registering net punts of 36 yards in Week 1 and 36.8 yards in Week 2, compared to Berry’s 37.1 and 31.6 net in respective weeks.

For Chris Boswell, a solution to the problem is not so straightforward, and it would be reasonable to question how much of an issue he really has. As consistent as ever throughout the preseason, Boswell has only missed two field goals and an extra point to date in 2018, That being said, those three errant kicks have all proven to be rather significant.

A 42-yard field goal in the rain against Cleveland was no gimme, but game-winning kicks are something Steelers Nation became used to with Boswell in 2017. After going nine out of 10 on kicks between 40-49 yards last year and making 35 of 38 field-goal attempts, being anything besides automatic has some fans overreacting.

While this is obviously an absurd take for a man one year removed from a Pro Bowl season, Boswell could have won the game in overtime in Week 1, and the kicks he missed against Kansas City effectively changed the complexion of the game in the fourth quarter as the Steelers chased the Chiefs on the scoreboard.

Hoping to “kick my way through this,” Boswell at least did his best to address questions from the media after the game, unlike some of his teammates.

When the kickers weren’t letting the special teams unit down, the coverage and return teams were. Penalties negated some positive returns, including one by Antonio Brown to near mid-field and a 24-yard kick return by Ryan Switzer. Two drives were forced to start inside the Steelers own 11-yard line thanks to penalties and Tyler Matakevich was personally responsible in one of those instances.

But that wasn’t his biggest mistake on the day, which occurred on the final play of the game when a roughing-the-punter penalty cost Pittsburgh a chance to get the ball back with 12 seconds to play. Although no one is suggesting the Steelers would have thrown a Hail Mary to win the game if given the opportunity, it would have been nice to at least have had the chance to try.

The coaching staff may consider they’ve got so many issues to work on this week that the concerns about the special teams must take a backseat to the problems on defense, but if these problems persist, changes will need to be made.