Entering camp, Steelers seek consistency on special teams
Almost a decade ago, as a 35-year-old, first-time NFL head coach, Mike Tomlin didn't take long to show how much he was going emphasize special teams.
During the Steelers' first draft with him as coach, they spent two draft picks to take a punter (trading up in the fourth round to select Daniel Sepulveda). A few months later, just before the start of the regular season, the Steelers traded for Allen Rossum, a return specialist who'd require a roster spot and brought no value on defense or offense.
Despite the priority placed on it, the Steelers' special teams results have been a mixed bag in the Tomlin era. They've cycled through punters like no one else, repeated attempts to replace Antonio Brown at punt returner have failed, and Tomlin's teams have allowed seven kickoff return touchdowns while scoring only two.
While Tomlin stresses "splash plays" from the unit, avoiding opponent big plays on special teams is just as important as creating them.
What worked in 2015:
The Steelers prevented splash plays on special teams, not allowing a kick or punt return touchdown nor a blocked punt or field goal. Though the kicking game was a disaster under Josh Scobee the first four games of the season — unambiguously costing the Steelers an Oct. 1 game against Baltimore – the arrival of Chris Boswell two days later stabilized things the rest of the season as he was 29 for 32 on field goals. Had he posted that percentage for an entire season and been the Steelers' only kicker, the team would have ranked seventh in the NFL. Though the return units were ordinary, Brown produced a touchdown on a punt return for the third consecutive season. Also, new special teams ace Roosevelt Nix forced a fumble on a return in what ended up a three-point win Nov. 8 against Oakland.
What didn't work in 2015:
Under first-year punter Jordan Berry, the Steelers' gross punting average (42.6) ranked third-to-last in the NFL and the net average (39.1) was 24th. As good as Boswell was on field goals, his kickoffs were lacking — the Steelers' 40.4 percent rate of touchbacks ranked 30th in the league.
What's new this season:
Boswell has earned the right to be the unquestioned kicker, and he opens training camp unopposed in winning those duties after Shaun Suisham's release last month. Seventh-round draft pick Demarcus Ayers and rookie free agent Marcus Tucker are the latest players given the opportunity to fill punt-return duties in lieu of Brown, the All-Pro receiver whom the team would prefer to shield from special teams play. Highly-regarded punter Will Monday was brought in, one of several rookies looking to make an impression on special teams. Travis Feeny, Tyler Matakevich and Brandon Johnson are among others who will be on coverage or return teams during practices at St. Vincent.
Key position battles:
• Berry is attempting to become the first Steeler during the Tomlin era to hold the punter's job for two consecutive full seasons — that's no guarantee, with Monday on hand.
• Who returns kickoffs and punts could shake out in any number of ways with candidates such as Ayers, Tucker and Levi Norwood in the running to unseat incumbents Brown (punts) and Markus Wheaton (kickoffs).
• Greg Warren has been the Steelers long snapper (when healthy) continuously since the start of the 2005 season. Can first-year player Matt Dooley make a case to unseat him?