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Steelers Vertex: Breaking down a big punting performance

Steelers fans seemed very pleased with the first game of seventh-round draft pick Pressley Harvin III.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Minicamp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As the Pittsburgh Steelers have completed their first preseason game, there is now new data and film to analyze and discuss in regards to the 2021 season. While there could be numerous things to look at on offense or defense, both schemes are quite vanilla at this point of the process. Instead, we’re going to tackle an individual performance of a special teams player. Seventh-round draft pick Pressley Harvin III and Jordan Berry are in a battle during training camp to see who will emerge as the the Steelers punter for the 2021 season. First up was Harvin who received all the playing time in the Hall of Fame Game this past Thursday.

Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.

Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.

Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.

Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.

The Stats Line:

Before diving into the punting stats from the Hall of Fame Game, let’s take a look at the importance of punting in giving field position. To be specific, let’s look at how the Steelers defense performed based on their opponents starting position, both inside the 20-yard line and inside the 10-yard line.

In 2020, the Steelers opponents begin drives at or inside the 20-yard line 58 times including the postseason. On those drives, their opponents scored nine touchdowns (15.5%) and two field goals (3.4%) resulting in scoring drives occurring on 19% of drives inside the 20. Teams punted 30 times (51.8%) and turned the ball over on downs 5 times (8.6%) with the Steelers forcing turnovers 8 times (13.8%). The other drives included two which ended either the game or the half, one missed field goal, and one safety.

In looking at the drives which started inside their opponents 10-yard line for the 2020 Steelers, there were only 14 times this happened last season. It should be noted that these drives were also included in the stats for inside the 20-yard line. But in 2020, the Steelers only surrendered one touchdown where the team started inside their own 10 yard line (7.1%) and one field-goal (7.1%). The Steelers forced three turnovers (21.4%) and 9 punts (64.3%).

With the Steelers surrendering scores on 30.8% of their total drives in 2020, these percentages went down significantly to 19% when drive started inside the opponents 20 and 14.2% when they started inside their opponents 10-yard line.

Going back one more season to 2019, the data is very similar. With the Steelers having 49 drives where their opponents started at or inside the 20-yard line, they gave up three touchdowns and five field goals for a total of 16.3% of drives which ended in scores. The Steelers forced 11 turnovers on these drives (22.4%) and 22 punts (44.9%). When looking at the 13 drives which started at or inside their opponents 10-yard line, the Steelers did not surrender a touchdown in 2019 and only two field goals for a total scoring percentage of 15.4%. The Steelers also forced two turnovers (7.7%), seven punts (53.8%), and one turnover on downs (7.7%).

So in the last two seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers have only surrendered a touchdown on a drive which started at or inside their opponents 10 yard line one time. That drive happened in Week 10 during the Steelers’ 36-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

Now that we’ve established the importance of the punting game in establishing field position, we now have the context for judging Pressley Harvin’s performance last Thursday. On four punts, Harvin totaled 183 yards for an average of 45.8 yards. His long punt was for 51 yards. Most importantly, 3 of the 4 punts were downed inside the 20 yard line. The three punts started Cowboys’ drives at the 11-yard line on two occasions at once on the 1-yard line.

The only punt which did not finish inside the 20 yard line was because the Steelers recovered the ball at the 26 yard line after striking the Cowboys returner. The ball actually hit the returner at the 24-yard line. Had the returner not been there, the ball would have almost certainly bounded inside the 20 and possibly even inside the 10-yard line.

Now that the numbers have been laid out, let’s see how things went in the film section.

The Film Line:

Pressley Harvin III only punted four times in the Hall of Fame game, but the results of those four punts were pretty incredible. The average field position for the opposing offense after 3 of those punts was the 8 yard line, and the fourth result was an extra Steelers possession.

Football isn’t an individual sport though, and results like that can be caused by great punting, great effort by the coverage team or by the opposing team making mistakes. To judge how much credit Pressley Harvin III deserves for the results we need to look at the film and how those results were attained.

First Quarter, 3:54. Pressley Harvin III’s first punt.

Harvin’s first punt in NFL competition was a short field punt. Starting just outside the Steelers 45-yard line, Harvin kicked the ball to the 10 yard line, a 35-yard punt. While that isn’t a very long punt, Harvin hangs the kick in the air long enough that the kick coverage team has the returner surrounded at the catch point. While you’d love to see this ball go about 5 yards farther and really pin the opposition back, you can’t complain about a punt to the opposing team’s 11 yard line.

Second quarter, 2:00. Pressley Harvin III’s second punt.

This punt starts at midfield and lands inside the one yard line resulting in a 49-yard punt that bounced straight up and stayed out of the end zone. Pressley Harvin III couldn’t make a better punt in this situation. It is spectacular.

The only downside to a punt like this is the factor that luck plays in it. No matter how hard a punter tries, you can’t reliably replicate this kind of punt, which is why you see his other punts landing around the 10 yard line, because that gives the punt 10 yards in each direction as a margin of error before the punt fails to land inside the 20.

Fourth quarter, 14:11. Pressley Harvin’s third punt.

This is my favorite punt of the game. The play starts at the Steelers 38-yard line, and the punt hits the ground at the Cowboys 15 yard line. That’s 47 yards in the air, before the bounce.

That’s good distance, but the beautiful thing about this punt is #17 for the Steelers. The gunner runs downfield, crosses the 15 yard line and sets up at the 6 yard line by the time the punt lands at the 15 yard line. That’s a 47 yard punt that hit the 15 yard line a full second after the gunner crossed it. That’s fantastic hang time and it eliminates any chance of a return.

Fourth quarter, 5:51. Pressley Harvin III’s fourth punt.

Depending on if you believe the bounce this ball takes is luck or design, you can rate this as Harvin III’s best or worst punt of the night. What you can’t do is ignore that what announcers called a line-drive punt hit the ground 10 yards ahead of the gunner. That isn’t outkicking the coverage, and with the bounce creating a loose ball the gunner is able to get the ball because this kick didn’t get too far past the coverage. With the angle the TV broadcast chose I can’t see his hands to judge Harvin’s intent, but if Harvin III can replicate that bounce, it will be a real weapon to mix into his repertoire.

The Point:

Pressley Harvin looks to have a variety of punts in his toolkit, and the best part is he gets good hang time from all of them. The longer a punt is in the air, the longer the coverage team has to get down field, and the fewer returns the offense has to worry about. If Harvin III can match the control of the ball’s spin and bounce he showed in the Hall of Fame game, he will be one of the best punters in the NFL.