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Steelers Film Room: Special teams mistakes keep Bengals close in Week 12

The uptick on offense was unfortunately neutered by poor special team plays.

Syndication: Florida Times-Union Bob Self/Florida Times-Union / USA TODAY NETWORK

An important part of the Pittsburgh formula for success this year has been solid special teams play. When the offense isn’t scoring many points, it’s imperative to have the defense and special teams both providing quality work to give the Steelers a chance for victory each week. Aside from the 10 points coming from Chris Boswell’s right foot in the 16-10 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, the special teams units had an off week. Let’s have a look.

Boswell has been as close to perfect as a kicker can be, with his only miss coming from 61 yards away while only having 13 kickoffs returned all year. Of those 13, only three have been returned more than 30 yards. No kickoff return has set up the opponent for an easy score. After a second-quarter field goal gave the Steelers a 3-0 lead, Bengals running back Trayveon Williams would return the kickoff 46 yards. In the clip below, rookie Nick Herbig starts as the third Steeler from the left side of the screen.

At the 30-yard line, Herbig is between the numbers and the hash marks when he gets blocked toward the inside, and a wide lane for Williams is born. The blocker who knocked Herbig down then heads to James Pierre. Pierre dances with him a bit, keeping the play in front of him and buying time for special teams captain Miles Killebrew to chase down Williams at the sideline. Killebrew began this play on Boswell’s left and disengages from a blocker at the center of the field on the 30 as Williams is at top speed at the 20. Pierre’s dancing and Killebrew’s hustle prevent this return from being any worse than it was.

It’s notable that Herbig and Killebrew would switch positions on the remaining kickoffs for this game. Out of curiosity, I wondered if this was a new role for the rookie. Sure enough, every kickoff last week against the Browns had Herbig lined up next to Boswell on kickoffs—the same spot he would be moved back to after this 46-yard return.

Speaking of Miles Killebrew (No. 28), this next clip is to honor him and Trenton Thompson (No. 17). You will see Killebrew moving from the right hash mark to the left. When neither tight end on that side releases to a route, Killebrew will rush the passer. Thompson will move into the screen at the hash mark vacated by Killebrew as Damontae Kazee frantically directs traffic. Thompson covers the tight end directly in front of him. Quarterback Jake Browning throws the ball away to the sideline. The Bengals used a three tight end grouping and the Steelers answered with a three safety package of Killebrew, Kazee, and Thompson.

Nothing special happened on this play, but it was the very first defensive play of the game. As such, Killebrew gets credit for his first start as a Steeler and Thompson gets the first start of his career. Killebrew wouldn’t play another defensive snap while Thompson played all but one the rest of the day — congratulations to both!

Punter Pressley Harvin and the punt coverage unit have been especially effective at limiting returns. It’s a good thing the punt team has performed so well, too, as the Steelers rank third in total punts this season. While ranking No. 5 in punts inside the 20, until Sunday only two of Harvin’s 48 punts resulted in touchbacks. That number doubled to four this week.

The clip below is Harvin’s first punt from the Bengal 43. This kick had perfect placement as it bounced high into the air after hitting the 5-yard line. Both gunners are on the scene, but Myles Boykin steps into the end zone before touching the ball and instead of pinning Cincinnati inside the 5 it results in a touchback and a net of 23 yards.

Harvin’s next punt again bounced at the 5 and went into the end zone. James Pierre had been blocked to the ground at the 10 and could not get near it. The 59-yard kick would result in a 39-yard net. The other two punts on the day were much better— a fair catch at the 11 and Pierre downing one at the 8.

The kick and punt return units have provided little to get excited about, and that could be considered a good thing. Since the team released returner Gunner Olszewski, there hasn’t been much drama concerning ball security on kicks. The Steelers were certainly expecting Calvin Austin’s electrifying speed to add some spark to the return game, but it has yet to happen. Good returns require good blocking.

Below is Austin’s fourth-quarter punt return that lost three yards. A 41-yard punt by the Bengals with decent hang time probably wasn’t going to allow for much of a return, but it sure doesn’t help when you double a gunner with two jammers and that gunner gets through to make the tackle. Pierre and Chandon Sullivan are lined up over the gunner to the bottom of the screen to form the double team.

Once they force the gunner out of bounds they are not allowed to block him there, but he has to try to get back inbounds or be penalized. Pierre goes wide to avoid touching him while out of bounds, while Sullivan loses the race down the sideline 15 yards before the spot where the punt is fielded giving Austin no chance at a return.

It was a week that saw the Steeler offense gain more yards than it had in years — literally. Part of the reason it wasn’t more than a six-point margin of victory, however, was the field position lost on special teams plays. The punt touchbacks cost about 15 yards each and were followed by three-and-outs. The Steelers would take possession at their 49 and 42 after stuffing the Bengals.

One of those Steeler drives ended in a fumble, the other in a punt from the Cincinnati 42. A few yards better field position can turn that punt into a field goal. The 46-yard kick return cost 15-20 yards compared to if Boswell had forced a touchback or if the coverage unit allowed its average return. The Bengals would turn that field position into 7 points just four plays later. Cincinnati had only 19 yards of offense in 7 plays before that kickoff return. It wasn’t just yards, it was a jump start to a dead battery and kept them in a game they had no business being in.

HC Mike Tomlin voiced his displeasure with the execution of the special teams unit in Week 12 during his weekly press conference.

I thought the field positioning component of the game was really significant — and not in a positive way. We had two penalties in the punt return game. One of the punt returners went to midfield. I think that drive started around the 30. That field positioning component is big.

We had a couple opportunities to down punts inside the five-yard line or so, and those were touchbacks. They ran a kickoff back to midfield. I think that was their touchdown drive in the first half. And so, the field positioning component did not work in our favor. It’s something that we fight hard for, it’s something that our special teams unit takes a great deal of pride in, but we didn’t get the job done. And I thought that it affected the game. I thought that the score was what it was because of it. And so, we got some work to do in that area.

Hopefully, that callout is enough to get them into position for a bounceback in Week 13. The Steelers are set to host the Cardinals in Week 13, with kickoff set for Sunday, December 3 at 1 p.m. ET.