Special teams coach brings effervescent attitude to Steelers
Danny Smith is a man in perpetual motion.
He does not stop for a moment while coaching Steelers special teams — yelling, screaming, sprinting, cajoling, instructing, explaining, pleading and encouraging. He does not expect his players to slow down or hesitate while a play is in progress, so he certainly isn't going to do so while teaching them.
“I love this stuff, I love it, love it, love it,” Smith said Sunday, a relatively slow day of practice — there was only one session — for such a high-tempo coach. “I've got a lot of energy for everybody. The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack, and I believe it that. I believe in the high energy, and I've got to show it to them.”
After a season in which the Steelers fired one special teams coach during training camp (Al Everest) and saw another leave following the season (Amos Jones, for Arizona), Smith is trying to restore the stability, confidence and enthusiasm of a special teams unit that finished 21st in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
There were slippages across the board, most noticeably in Antonio Brown's punt return average — from 10.8 yards per return in 2011 to 6.8. And the Steelers' season shifted negatively when Jacoby Jones' 63-yard punt return touchdown carried the Ravens to a pivotal 13-10 AFC North victory at Heinz Field on Nov. 18.
Smith watched every special teams play of the season on video after being hired, and he believes he can make a difference even as he prepares to turn 60 one day before the Steelers open the season Sept. 8 against Tennessee.
“I thought they worked extremely hard. I thought they tackled well. I thought they did some good things,” Smith said. “And I think I can help them in some areas to improve and be a factor. We lost five games by three points or less, we won three games by three points or less, that's half your season. There are some situations I think we can help them in to improve that, because we've got to be factors in those games.”
Curtis Brown, the cornerback who had a team-leading 17 special teams tackles, said it didn't take the players long to recognize what Smith might bring to the Steelers.
“I think a big reason why we're going to be much better is because of our coach,” Brown said. “He's somebody who's going to get after it, that's the way I would say it. He's on a different level. He's serious about his job. He brings a lot to the room and he's trying to help us get an identity on special teams.”
Smith brings energy and enthusiasm to every practice, which is uncommon in a sport where players are on the field almost daily from July to January.
“There's a want-to, a mentality, a mindset, and that's my job to set that stage, (bring) that attitude, mindset, that identity of what we are going to be — and I think our players are starting to buy into that,” Smith said.
Smith especially is enthused about this season because it's his first in his hometown. The Steelers sought to talk to the former Edinboro player once before but were denied permission by the Redskins. But when coach Mike Tomlin asked to talk with Smith again last winter, the Redskins allowed Smith to return home.
Smith teared up as he talked about finally getting to coach in Pittsburgh after being in the NFL since 1995 with the Eagles, Lions, Bills and Redskins.
“This is home to me. I get a little emotional talking about it,” the former Central Catholic player said. “I never really planned because I don't think you can do that in this profession; things work in different ways. It's a honor and a privilege to be a coach with the Steelers.”
While the Steelers haven't settled on a kickoff return man, Smith appears to be comfortable with his kicker (Shaun Suisham), punter (Drew Butler, with Brian Moorman also in camp) and punt returners (Brown and Emmanuel Sanders). Now he said it's his job to make sure there is improvement in all elements of the kicking game.
“It's the players who make it work. You've got to have players in this league to be successful,” Smith said. “But we will be very good here.”
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