The Steelers lost a certain big-time contributor to free agency this year.
No, I’m not talking about the talented Javon Hargrave, or even Mark Barron.
I’m talking about Tyler Matakevich.
Matakevich has been a special teams phenom ever since he entered the league in 2016. He was as good as ever last season, and even tied for the league high in special teams tackles with 16. As a seventh round pick out of Temple, the odds were always stacked against “Dirty Red”, but he managed to find a niche on punts and kickoffs, and became one of the best special teams aces in the league.
His body of work didn’t go unnoticed, however, as he signed with the Buffalo Bills in free agency for a 2-year deal worth up to $9 million. It was a big contract, especially for a special-teamer, but was still a solid investment by the Bills. It hurt to lose Matakevich, but Pittsburgh would’ve been worse off if they had tried to one-up Buffalo with a possible contract.
The Steelers weren’t done losing special-teamers, however, releasing Anthony Chickillo, their overpaid depth OLB, and Johnny Holton, who filled in as a gunner on punts quite well last year.
Chickillo was a necessary cut, but despite his deficiencies at outside linebacker, he was a solid player on special teams during his time in Pittsburgh. He had eight ST tackles in 2019 (tied for 40th in the league), as well as some solid contributions in punt protection and the other aspects of special teams. His $5 million cap savings after his release made him a no-brainer cut by Pittsburgh, but the void he left on special teams was much larger than the one left by his minimal defensive production.
Holton didn’t offer much as a receiver last year, but was a fantastic gunner on punts. His long speed led him to always be right by the returner once they caught the ball, which made up for his less than stellar time on offense for the most part. He was a surprising cut by the Steelers in March, as his cap savings were only $825,000, but it looks as if it will turn out to have been a wise move by the Steelers, especially after the results of their draft.
In perhaps one of the more saddening roster cuts of the year, the Steelers let go of fan favorite yet oft-injured fullback Roosevelt Nix. Nix, who was the team’s special teams captain in 2019, was a Pro Bowl fullback when healthy, and a hard-hitter and good blocker in all of the phases of special teams. However, his injury-plagued season, as well as his $1 million cap-hit, made him expendable - especially after the team signed another fullback in Derek Watt to the roster.
Steelers’ special teams coach Danny Smith has received a lot of flak throughout his career, and a lot of it has been aptly deserved. However, he’s always fielded solid units for the most part with the Steelers, even though many of his strategies have left much to be desired.
One of the reasons why Smith still has a job is the solid core of players he has had in Pittsburgh, with names such as Matakevich, Chickillo, Nix, and even Holton.
After losing four of their top special-teamers in one offseason, it looked as if the Steelers would struggle in that department the following season.
However, they did a great job making up for it with some new faces in 2020.
Most notably would be Derek Watt, whose signing was one of the Steelers’ bigger moves this offseason. He’ll obviously contribute as a fullback, but more importantly looks to be one of the team’s better special-teamers this year. While Watt might replace Roosevelt Nix as a blocker on offense and punt/kick returns, he’ll be replacing Matakevich for the most part when it comes to tackling. His 16 ST tackles in 2019 were tied with the former Steelers linebacker for the league lead, and he managed to get a Pro Bowl nod as icing on the cake.
The Steelers also made an effort to bring back two mainstays of special teams whose contracts were up, re-signing veteran safety Jordan Dangerfield and long-snapper Kameron Canaday.
Young linebackers Robert Spillane and Ulysees Gilbert III are two rising special-teamers on Pittsburgh’s 2020 roster who shouldn’t be forgotten, either. Spillane had incredible production in 2019, putting up an impressive 10 ST tackles, despite not even playing the entire season. Gilbert was one of the Steelers’ best in that area as well, before his season-ending injury. A full season for either of them could have excellent results.
Justin Layne also impressed as a gunner opposite Holton, and looks to improve in that role this season.
Pittsburgh’s draft reflected the importance placed on special teams as well. Chase Claypool, their second-round wide receiver, will fill in nicely for Johnny Holton as a gunner. Claypool played special teams through his senior year at Notre Dame, not due to necessity, but rather his talent and love for playing in that phase of the game.
Stuck at #4 on the Steelers wide receiver depth chart for now, Claypool might make the biggest impact on special teams his rookie year.
In the third round, the Steelers drafted Alex Highsmith, an outside linebacker out of Charlotte, who was specifically highlighted by general manager Kevin Colbert as a player who would be able to contribute on special teams.
Safety Antoine Brooks Jr., the Steelers’ sixth round pick this year, also looks to be a perfect fit on special teams. Even though his role on defense might be in question, Brooks’ tough, hard-hitting mentality projects him to have a solid floor as a special teams ace if nothing else.
Don’t forget the Pittsburgh signed Corliss Waitman in undrafted free agency this year. He’ll be the latest at trying to unseat Jordan Berry as the Steelers’ punter in 2020.
Despite losing four of their best special teams players, the Steelers reloaded in a big way, even possibly improving, somehow.
Hopefully we’ll be screaming at Danny Smith a little less than usual this season.