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For the Steelers to improve in 2019, fixing the Special Teams must be a priority

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Diving into the Pittsburgh Steelers’ special teams, which will need to improve in 2019.

NFL: AFC Divisional-Pittsburgh Steelers at Denver Broncos Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Our last two articles looked at some of the fundamental terms and concepts employed by the Steelers offense and defense. Today, we turn our attention to that distant relative of the football family who shows up every third Christmas and makes awkward conversation until you’re forced to go hide in the bathroom for twenty minutes. I’m not talking about Cousin Randy. I’m talking about special teams.

Foreign and irrelevant as special teams may seem, the truth is they are incredibly important to the outcome of most football games. For example, in the Steelers week 16 game against New Orleans last season, 29 of the 161 total plays came on special teams. That’s 18%. This number varies a bit in a typical NFL game. On average though, 15-20% of all plays involve special teams. That is not an insignificant number. And yet most fans pay them little attention.

Why is that? Why do so many fans either ignore these units or have no idea how they operate? We love to analyze the intricacies of offensive and defensive schemes - zone blitzes, sweep plays, the 3-4 defense, etc. Why isn’t the same true for special teams?

My personal theory is it’s because special teams occur outside the realm of “normal” football. When we were kids playing pick-up at the local ballpark, we might have had a “kickoff” where someone threw or punted the ball to the other team. But we didn’t literally kick the ball off a tee and set up a legitimate return. We didn’t punt the ball on 4th down. And unless you were like my friend Tim, whose father constructed a real goal post in his backyard, you didn’t kick extra points or field goals (Tim’s Dad also built a wiffle ball field with bases, lines and an outfield fence. I think he had too much time on his hands). Pick-up football, then, was “I-got-this-guy” coverage and drawing up plays in the dirt. It was not the strategic exchange of field position via the kicking game.

And yet special teams can be exhilarating. Kickoffs and punts, especially, involve all of the things that make football great. Speed, physicality, agility, sound fundamentals, complex schemes and the potential for game-changing plays exist every time some glorified soccer player boots the ball into the air. Statistics show that blocked punts and special teams touchdowns are almost as impactful on the outcome of games as turnovers. It would stand to reason, then, that an elite franchise like the Steelers would invest significant time and resources developing great special teams units.

The thing is, we haven’t. In recent seasons, the Steelers have been in the bottom third in the league in several of the most important special teams statistics. Here are a few that underscore just how bad our special teams have been.

DVOA

Some of you may have heard of the statistic “DVOA,” which stands for Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average. That’s stat-geek talk for how a team compared to the league average in a particular area. In essence, DVOA measures how far above or below the norm a team is producing. Kansas City, for example, was +34 DVOA for total offense in 2018, best in the NFL. That means the Chiefs were 34% more productive on offense than the league average (the Steelers were 6th at +13). Arizona, meanwhile, was -41, or 41% less productive than the norm. DVOA, then, can be useful in measuring how far above or below the pack a team stands in a particular area.

Special teams DVOA does not automatically correlate to success the way it tends to with offense and defense. Two of the top three leaders in Special Teams DVOA in 2018 were the Jets and the Giants, neither of whom were very good. When you’re bad on offense, as both those teams were, good special teams will not save you.

For better teams, however, a stat like Special Teams DVOA can make the difference between being good and being great. Take the Steelers, who missed the playoffs by the slightest fraction in 2018. One contributor to that narrow miss was their Special Teams DVOA number: -3.5, good for 27th in the league. -3.5% might not seem like a stunning deficiency but it was enough to impact crucial games. Chris Boswell’s two missed field goals in the three-point loss to the Raiders, for example. The fourth quarter punt return touchdown surrendered to San Diego that swung the momentum in that game. The abysmal 31 yard net punting average, including a punt return to the Steelers’ 10 yard line, in the loss to Kansas City. And of course, the failed fake punt gamble in the fourth quarter at New Orleans. Each of these special teams’ shortcomings affected the outcome of a close ballgame that, had the Steelers won any of them, would have given them the AFC North title and a home playoff game.

NET RETURN YARDS

Net return yards measures the actual yards gained or surrendered after punts and kickoffs. In both categories, the Steelers have finished poorly over the past five seasons. Consider:

Punt and kick return yards are the hidden yards in football games that affect field position and alter outcomes. According to Football Outsiders, the average yards per drive for NFL offenses over that same five-year span was 31. A 31 yard drive that begins deep in one’s own territory because of great punt coverage will not amount to points. But if that drive starts near the 40, it likely will. By finishing in the Top 12 in most return yards surrendered in four of the past five seasons (including a dubious #1 in 2015), the Steelers routinely put tremendous pressure on their defense to hold opposing offenses short of that 31-yard-per-drive average.

Conversely, the inability to gain hidden yards in the return game, where the Steelers have been no better than 18th in the past five years, means the offense has to gain more yards per drive than the league average to reach scoring range. In short, bad special teams play is making things harder on both the offense and the defense.

The DVOA and net return yardage numbers depict a special teams unit that needs immediate improvement. Throw in the fact that Boswell and punter Jordan Berry each had dreadful kicking years in 2018 and it becomes clear that, despite the hand-wringing about how we will compensate for the loss of AB on offense and whether the corners are good enough on defense, fixing the special teams might be the key to getting over the hump in 2019.

There’s one potential problem with this: Boswell, Berry and special teams coordinator Danny Smith are all back. It’s not unreasonable, then, to wonder how we’re going to improve. I can’t speculate on how Smith might tweak his schemes but I can look at the personnel available to execute them. That’s a good place to start. What can we say about the lunch-pail guys who typically man these units?

Special teams duty is not glamorous. It does not, relatively-speaking, earn a player a massive paycheck. And, given the speed at which special teams plays move and their open-field nature, it can be dangerous.

Every player who has made it to the NFL has been a star at the lower levels of football. As stars, few participated on special teams. Coaches tend to protect their stars whenever possible, which often eliminates them as candidates. Many of these players are not stars in the NFL, however, and are therefore asked to contribute on special teams. Some see this as beneath them and fail to embrace the duty. Others see it as a ticket to bigger things. Desire, then, often determines their effectiveness as special teams players.

The Steelers have a host of young, hungry players on their roster who likely see special teams duty as a great way to make an impact in the NFL. LJ Fort, Tyler Matakevich, Anthony Chickillo, Jordan Dangerfield and Rosie Nix are all team-first guys with great attitudes and should make good special teamers.

Having hungry players is one thing. What about execution, though? Here is where the Steelers will need to make the biggest strides to improve in 2019.

Take San Diego’s punt return touchdown against us last season. This play did not suffer from a lack of effort; it suffered from poor athleticism and fundamentals. Here is the GIF in its entirety, then we’ll break it down to see what went wrong:

There are several problems here. First, in the image below, we see the moment Jordan Berry makes contact with the football (circled). At that moment, every Steeler interior player is at least two yards deep in the backfield and none are in the process of a clean release (LJ Fort is working to disengage here, but there are two Charger blockers waiting on him once he does).

This is problematic because it delays the coverage unit from getting downfield. It also puts tremendous pressure on the gunners to make an open-field tackle. No San Diego player is anywhere close to blocking this punt as the Chargers are in a “hold-up” technique, trying to delay the Steelers at the line of scrimmage as long as possible to set up a return. The Steelers interior players need to recognize this and get a quicker release.

Speaking of the gunners, let’s look at the first man down in coverage, Darius Heyward-Bey. I admire DHB for how he transitioned from a high first round draft pick to a special teams ace when he didn’t excel as a receiver. That transition shows the unselfish, team-first mentality you want from special teamers. Unfortunately, DHB did a poor job on this particular play.

In the images below, we see return man Desmond King catch the ball at his own 27 yard line. DHB is about four yards away from him. He has beaten Jeremy Cox, the man assigned to block him, and Cox has no choice but to block DHB in the back should he re-engage. Thus, DHB should immediately break down and get into position to tackle.

He doesn’t. As you can see below, he runs right through King, who sidesteps him and makes him miss.

Once King is past DHB, look at the running lane he has. Tyler Matakevich (labeled as ‘1’) and LJ Fort (‘3’) are both being walled off by their blockers while Rosie Nix (‘2’) is no match in space for the athletic King.

Once football becomes an open-field fire drill, conditions favor the more athletic group. San Diego’s punt return team is more athletic than the Steelers’ punt team. The result is six points for the opposition.

A host of issues doom this play, then: the late release by the coverage team; the failure of DHB to get into adequate tackling position; Matakevich and Fort failing to disengage from their blocks in time; Nix being unable to tackle in space; and finally, as you can see on the film, the failure of second-level guys like Terrell Edmunds and Jordan Dangerfield to squeeze the football (FWIW, it’s tough to tell if there is a block in the back on the second gunner here, who shows in the GIF just after Hey-Bey. I watched it over and over and still wasn’t sure. If it’s not totally clear, the refs shouldn’t throw a flag. And even if they do, our issues with fundamentals still exist).

You don’t want to cherry-pick one play and use it to criticize the special teams in general. But the results, or lack thereof, speak for themselves. For the Steelers to improve in 2019, desire won’t be the key to success. Athleticism and execution will.

From an athletic standpoint, having players like Matakevich and Nix on the punt team seems questionable. They are tough, blue-collar guys but lack agility. Ulysees Gilbert, should he make the roster, would be a significant upgrade. Should Gilbert flash on special teams this pre-season, it might spell the end of Dirty Red’s time here. Both Gilbert and Sutton Smith should be given every opportunity to stick as special teams players.

Fellow rookie Justin Layne should be considered for punt team duty in the gunner’s role that DHB occupied. Layne is not as fast as DHB but he is bound to be a better open-field tackler. Fellow corners Cam Sutton or perhaps AAF-signee Kameron Kelly should be considered as gunners, too. Sacrificing the speed of a wide receiver for the tackling ability of a DB would be a wise exchange.

In the return game, Ryan Switzer is reliable but lacks the explosiveness to make big plays. Diontae Johnson seems like a great candidate to mix in with Switzer as a punt returner. He returned just 17 punts in college but averaged 20.2 yards per return and brought two back for touchdowns. It’s a small sample size but the numbers are exceptional.

As for the kickers, I’m of the opinion that Boswell will revert more towards his 2017 form and not that of the jittery and inconsistent player we saw last year. He was just too good to fall apart permanently. Jordan Berry, on the other hand, is not a very good professional punter. The hope here is he either improves on his hang time, his directional kicking or is simply beaten out by someone better in training camp.

The greatest burden in all of this falls on the shoulders of the coordinator, Danny Smith. Smith has been coaching special teams at the pro level for over twenty years. It’s safe to assume his schemes are sound. The question is, can he gets his players to execute them? To do so, he must become a meticulous and disciplined task-master who drills his units until they can perform in their sleep. Mike Tomlin must assist him in this regard by making special teams a priority in practice so players treat it as an equal third of the game and not as something that happens between offense and defense.

An infusion of athleticism should help these units. And the odds are decent that Boswell will bounce back. But the sense of urgency with which Tomlin treats the special teams and the ability of Smith to get them to execute will go a long way towards determining how a promising Steelers squad fares in 2019.