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Steelers Film Room: Special teams and hustle plays stand out in win over Packers

Hustle, versatility, and special teams play made the Steelers a tough team to beat.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers continued their method of winning close football games again in Week 10 with a 23-19 victory over the Green Bay Packers. Key ingredients in the recipe for this type of success have been winning the turnover battle, making enough plays on defense to keep the opponent’s score under 20, and quality special teams play. The offense has made the turnover battle easy lately, with only one multi-turnover game in the last seven—three of the last four have been zeroes in the giveaway department. The defense has seemingly never been at full strength yet continues to have several difference-making snaps each week. The only missed kick by Chris Boswell this year was a 61-yarder and all but eight of his kickoffs have resulted in touchbacks. The combo of coverage and Pressley Harvin’s punting has his punt return average yards of 5.7 among the five best in the NFL. Let’s take a look at some other contributors to this game-winning formula.

Special plays on special teams

While Boswell gets much-deserved credit for a season that’s a hair away from perfection, he’s just one of 11 that are on the field for his kicks. This first clip is from the second quarter when Boswell’s 42-yard field goal extended the Steeler lead to 17-7. Tight end Rodney Williams and defensive tackle Keeanu Benton are at the top of the screen on the field goal protection unit. It’s easy to see Williams has to deal with two Packer players trying to block the kick. He takes the abuse but does the job, keeping his kicker clean. It may come as a surprise to see Benton get pushed back like he did here until you realize that he also has two Packers trying to run through him. They overloaded to that side and had a four-on-two advantage but the result was three more points on the scoreboard.

From the end zone view, we get a better look at the overload. Dan Moore gets a hand out to assist Benton but remains hip-to-hip with Nate Herbig to prevent a gap for a free rusher. Boswell’s kick is true and thanks to the field goal team, the Steelers have the rare first-half two-score lead.

It’s easy to take for granted that the snap, hold, and blocking will all provide the kicker with a stress-free attempt, especially on extra points. In this next clip, the Packers have scored to cut the score to 17-13, and Patrick Peterson blocks their extra-point attempt to keep them from getting within three. Similar to the Packers, the Steelers align themselves in an overload to the kicker’s left. To the bottom of the screen you can see Peterson’s right leg pumping and twitching about six times as he tries to explode at the snap. Elandon Roberts and Nick Herbig will double up on the nearest Packer along the line of scrimmage while Damontae Kazee and Peterson will have a two-on-one on the edge against the off-the-line blocker. No. 63 for the Packers will do his best to absorb the Roberts-Herbig double-team while also reaching out to slow Kazee. No. 87 will barely get his hands on Peterson, maybe even helping him get to the block point. Had Peterson not blocked it, there’s a chance that Kazee’s outstretched right hand would get a piece.

Peterson’s kick-blocking effort was highlighted in the Film Room article following the Rams game in Week 7. As a veteran coverage cornerback likely headed to the Hall of Fame in a few years, it would be understandable if he didn’t want any extra snaps on special teams and even more likely that his efforts would relax on an extra point compared to a field goal attempt. This type of effort demonstrates the leadership quality the Steelers were looking for when they signed him. His professional approach of giving maximum effort paid off by forcing the Packers to need a touchdown or multiple field goal possessions to take the lead, and his blocked extra point would affect decisions the rest of the afternoon. While the Packers did grab a lead in the third quarter, the Steelers answered and re-established the four-point advantage that would force the Packers to play for a touchdown instead of a field goal on their last two drives. Both of those drives would end in interceptions on passes to the end zone in search of that elusive touchdown.

Pure hustle from a thumper

When the Steelers signed linebacker Elandon Roberts in the offseason, it was reported that he was to be a run-stuffing hammer in the middle of the defense with limited coverage abilities. Roberts certainly has played as advertised in the thumping department. The recent injuries to Cole Holcomb and Kwon Alexander have added the role of defensive communicator to his plate. Now wearing the green dot helmet, Roberts is the one receiving the defense’s instructions from the coaches to relay to his teammates before each play through a speaker in his headgear. He has done this before in his career, but Holcomb and then Alexander handled those duties almost exclusively through the first eight games. This added pre-snap task hasn’t affected the in-play focus and hustle he uses to make plays.

With the Steelers holding a 17-13 lead in the third quarter, Green Bay is on a drive that has them at the Steeler 27 for this third-and-three play. Roberts starts this play at the far hash mark on the 22-yard line. He has Packer running back Aaron Jones as his coverage responsibility. Jones starts the play to the right of quarterback Jordan Love and sprints at the snap to the left flat. The three receivers in a bunch formation to the left all take their coverage with them on routes to the right, clearing out the left side for this Roberts-on-Jones matchup. Roberts is trailing Jones by two yards by the time they clear the offensive line but hustles and trips Jones up by taking a good angle to dive and grab a piece of his foot. Patrick Peterson circling around at the 3 is the only other Steeler with a shot of preventing a touchdown, had Roberts not stopped Jones at the 14.

While Jones gained enough for a first down into the red zone in the previous clip, two plays later the Steelers get the Packers into a third-and-nine at the 13. Green Bay will test Elandon Roberts once again. This time, instead of a one-on-one isolation play, they will try a screen pass to the right with two offensive linemen in front of Jones to lead the way. With one on Roberts and the other looking to clear a path to the end zone, Roberts will get around the lineman tasked with blocking him and go sideways from the 13 to the 18 to get an angle on the running back. He’s able to get his right hand on the hip and left hand on the leg of Jones. Jones has to do a 360 to remain upright and break the tackle. This momentum-killing forced spin move buys enough time for a hustling Benton to clean up the play when he buries Jones at the 13. Without Roberts efforts, Benton wouldn’t have time to chase this down. The Packers settled for a field goal after these two plays where they tried to take on Roberts and failed. Thanks to Peterson’s earlier blocked extra point, the Steelers would hold onto a 17-16 lead here, after Roberts foiled a pair of potential touchdowns.

Versatility results in crunch-time takeaway

Moving ahead to the 3:30 mark of the fourth quarter, the Steelers now hold a 23-19 lead. With a second-and-nine from the Pittsburgh 14, the Packers take a shot down the left sideline in the end zone to Christian Watson against Patrick Peterson’s coverage. Peterson will get a hand on the pass and tip it right to Keanu Neal who snags it for an interception. It’s a good play by Peterson to understand the route and get his head around to make a play on the ball. Something that made this play possible is the coverage ability of edge rusher Alex Highsmith. Instead of rushing the quarterback, Highsmith will draw a coverage assignment against pass-catching rookie tight end Luke Musgrave with deep help from Neal. Musgrave will give Highsmith an out move toward the sideline at the 8 and then take the route up to the end zone. Highsmith stays in tight coverage throughout the route allowing Neal to stay unoccupied and get a look at the quarterback. Seeing the pass go towards Watson, Neal heads that way to assist and takes the easy deflection from Peterson. There just aren’t many premier pass rushers that can cover that route as well as Highsmith did.

Say hello to the newest addition to the Steeler roster

After Neal’s end zone interception, the Steelers would use a little over two minutes of the clock and move the ball out to the 41 while making Green Bay use all of their timeouts. After the preceding third down play, tight end Connor Heyward would limp off of the field. On fourth down Pressley Harvin would punt the ball and the Packers would take possession at their 19, down by four with 59 seconds to play. The punt itself wasn’t very memorable—a forty-yarder that bounced to a stop with no return—and we can thank Tariq Carpenter for that. Who is Tariq Carpenter? Carpenter is a second-year safety/linebacker hybrid who was added to the Steeler practice squad on Sept. 2 after being cut three days earlier by...the Green Bay Packers. The Steelers added Carpenter to the active roster for the first time for this week’s game. Before the play in this clip, he logged 9 total snaps split between the punt return and kickoff coverage units. In the clip below of the punt protection and coverage unit, Rodney Williams is lined up at the very left of the screen and Carpenter is next to him—this spot had been manned all game by the now-injured Heyward. Williams will go low to block the punt rush attempt of the off-screen Packer who then side-steps him. The Packer clears Williams to be greeted by Carpenter who knocks No. 55 flat on his back. The punt gets away cleanly and a potential disaster is avoided.

It is said that fringe roster guys make NFL teams through special teams play and hustle. As soon as Carpenter is done negating a punt block opportunity he kicks it into high gear and beats everybody down to the football as it rolls to a stop at the 19, and takes away any chance for the Packers to pick it up for a return. Special teams ability, check. Hustle, check.

With the injuries to linebackers Holcomb and Alexander, the Steelers could use a linebacker with good coverage skills. What do we know about Carpenter and could he help fill that void? While listed on the Steeler roster as a linebacker, Carpenter played four years at Georgia Tech as a safety and was selected by the Packers in the seventh round of 2022’s draft. Per Pro Football Reference, Carpenter logged 122 snaps on special teams and 16 as a safety for the Packers last year. His pro day measurables list him as 6’3, 230 pounds, with a 4.52 time in the 40-yard dash. While it can’t be assumed he will be the same player, Carpenter’s size and speed are similar to Holcomb’s pro day measurables of 6’1, 231 pounds, and 4.51 time.

The following is from Carpenter’s draft profile:

The four-year starting safety is making the move to linebacker, where his size, speed and aggressive demeanor should help him fit more cleanly than at safety. Carpenter is a natural in run support with clear eyes and a physical approach in the box. Taking on blockers in a faster-paced game could cause bumps in the road early on. He has good pursuit range, average body control and the potential to guard tight ends. Carpenter was an excellent pro-day tester, so the traits and special teams talent could buy him an early opportunity on a roster as he learns the linebacker position.

Whether Carpenter becomes anything more than a fringe roster guy is anyone’s guess, but it looks like his special teams abilities, hustle, and versatility will fit in fine with the Steelers in the same ways that Williams, Benton, Peterson, Roberts, and Highsmith contributed this week using those same attributes in these Film Room clips.