clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Does James Pierre’s value on special teams secure his roster spot for 2022?

Pierre’s contributions as a gunner on the Steelers punt team cannot be overlooked.

Detroit Lions v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers are chugging on through the 2022 offseason. Looking at a number of players and positions as the roster has fluctuated, sometimes it’s players the Steelers have on their roster taking a step that can really add to the coming season. Sometimes, it’s players who have been on the team for a while excelling in specific roles, such special teams, that bring the most value. One such player is James Pierre and his contributions as a gunner on the Steelers punt team. But is that enough to land him on the Steelers 53-man roster again in 2022? This is the subject for this week’s Steelers Vertex.

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:

When looking at special teams, there are not a lot of statistics that paint much of a picture. In 2021, James Pierre played 243 special team snaps according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) with 62 of them coming on punt coverage. Pierre also forced one fumble and had one tackle on Steelers punts last season and he also downed three punts.

When it comes to the Steelers punt team in 2021, they kicked the ball 77 times and only 32 of the punts were returned. Of the others, 15 went out of bounds, 4 were touchbacks, 19 resulted in a fair catch, and 7 were downed as a dead ball.

With so little numbers to go by for special teams, all I can do is set the stage with the numbers as Geoffrey needs to paint a much better picture with the film.

The Film Line:

James Pierre’s stats on punt coverage do not stand out in any positive way, but this is the part of his game I’m going to focus on. As Dave has pointed out many times, stats only tell part of the story, and on punt coverage, stats can tell a lot less.

Steelers vs. Bills, 1st quarter, 4:02.

James Pierre is the Steeler to the very top of the screen.

James Pierre doesn’t make the tackle on this punt. You could even credit him with a missed tackle if you wanted to, but if you look at the flow of the play. Pierre angles his approach to take away any return to the bottom of the screen, and doesn’t just do that, he forces the returner to give ground and head toward Pierre’s teammates in the middle of the field. They make the tackle and the punt return only gains back 1 yard.

Steelers vs. Bills, 2nd quarter, 6:12.

James Pierre is the player to the very bottom of the screen.

This is a far more common result for James Pierre in punt coverage. You can look at a lot of the Steelers punts that ended with a fair catch and see James Pierre standing in the returner’s face well ahead of the rest of the team. Pierre doesn’t have elite speed, but you can see how he wins his inside release a lot like a wide receiver would, with a jab step to the outside that sets up his win inside. Also while his 40 time isn’t good, you don’t see opponents getting back in front of him.

Steelers vs. Bengals, 1st quarter, 8:44.

James Pierre is the Steeler to the very top of the screen.

Here’s another play where Pierre isn’t making the tackle, and here he isn’t even very impactful. But watch the job he does getting down the field against a double team. I love how after he gets pushed out-of-bounds he cuts hard back onto the field and is able to run even while being blocked and win his path to the ball. If the returner had tried to break his return across the field, Pierre is there to help make the play.

Steelers vs. Vikings, 2nd quarter, 1:42.

James Pierre is the Steelers player to the very top of the screen.

Pierre frequently got extra attention with the amount of times the Steelers were punting to his side to get fair catches. The Steelers punt to the opposite side, Pierre eludes his blockers and is still the second player to the ball. You can see the variety of ways he beats his blockers in these clips. James Pierre consistently finds his way to the ball.

But while we’ve shown a lot of good plays, and passed over so many others that look the same, we also need to show how his plays can go wrong. One of the worst results on a Steelers punt cover play happened in Week 15.

Steelers vs. Titans, 1st quarter, 10:29.

James Pierre is the Steelers player to the very bottom of the screen.

The Titans strategy in Week 15 was largely to block everyone else and hope they could slow down Pierre with one blocker. It worked on this play and Pierre responds with a dumb push to the back for a penalty added onto a big return. The Titans offense took the ball the rest of the 25 yards they needed to score a touchdown. Pierre on defense, and on special teams can get in trouble for being too physical, and sometimes making the play more about him and the guy across from him than about the result for the team. It doesn’t show up very much, but it isn’t good when it does.

Steelers vs. Titans, 3rd quarter, 10:21.

James Pierre is the Steelers player to the very bottom of the screen.

When he got a chance, he did his best to get it back. A jab step to the inside wins him an outside release and he outruns his blocker to stack him and get a clear run at the returner.

The returner sees the rest of the Steelers team is losing their battles and doesn’t notice Pierre. The result is a forced fumble, but unfortunately, with no other Steelers around, the fumble is easily recovered. But look at the moment Pierre hits the returner:

The returner is hit, the ball is out, and the next closest Steelers player is still ten yards away from the play. This was Pierre’s only tackle on a punt return. The vast majority of his work ended in fair catches, with the occasional downed ball.

Steelers @ Ravenss, 2nd quarter, 4:39.

James Pierre is the Steelers player to the very top of the screen.

So much good stuff here. Pierre against a double team knows his biggest asset is the boundary line. By being in contact with his blocker when he crosses that line he leaves the field legally. While he is out of bounds, he cannot be blocked. He uses that rule to run past his first blocker. He has to get back in bounds and establish his presence before he can impact the play, so he doesn’t just re-enter the field, he initiates contact on his blocker, winning the contact and eliminating the only player in position to block him. He approaches the returner, who gets out of the way and Pierre downs the punt.

The Point:

James Pierre didn’t record a lot of stats on his punt coverage, but he was a fantastic gunner who consistently found his way to the ball quickly no matter what he was up against. He forced a lot of fair catches and showed the ability to make a returner pay if they misread his approach. James Pierre has value on defense in the right role, he has value on punt return and kickoff teams, but even if he didn’t have much value in those roles he would have a decent shot of making the Steelers roster based solely on his impact as a gunner on punting units.