Steelers Report Card: Special Teams

With the season over, I find myself with a frightening lack of structure.  It was nice knowing every Monday I could recap the previous afternoon’s game and every Friday I could roll out Know Thy Enemy.  So in that vein, I’m starting a recurring feature whereby I look at every area of the Pittsburgh Steelers, evaluate their 2010 performance, and assess their outlook for 2011.  I’ll still post relevant Steelers news and talk a little about the ongoing labor strife but this will give us a little something to talk about from now until the draft.

We’ll start by getting the most insignificant part of the team out of the way.  I know some people don’t like it when I say kickers aren’t real football players so allow me to explain.  The average guy off the street would get killed trying to play linebacker.  They would have no chance at wide receiver.  But my schlub of a brother, whose greatest athletic accomplishment is two years of J.V. soccer, has successfully booted a 40 yard field goal to win a free meal at Benihana.

In fact, my favorite non-Steelers moment of the season was when Ndamukong Suh attempted an extra point.  The Big Fella had nice form and was only about a foot and a half away from an exact copy of Shaun Suisham‘s hideous conversion in the Super Bowl.

Speaking of which, did anybody else catch the Punt, Pass, And Kick girl whose dream is to be an NFL kicker?  Frankly, I wouldn’t be shocked if it happened.  My cool physics professor at CMU once broke down the mechanics of kicking and “leg strength” is actually a misnomer.  Acceleration of your leg through the kicking motion and the angle which you strike the ball are just as important.  And we all know women, at least the ones who make the best girlfriends, are much more flexible than men.  So I fully expect to see the NFL’s version of Gina Carano take the field before the end of the decade.

Anyway, back to Suisham.  He did a pretty good job for the team after replacing drunk malcontent Skippy Reed midway through the season, converting fourteen of fifteen field goal attempts including eight of nine from 40-49 yards.  His kickoffs were more than satisfactory as well.  The only question with him is how he responds to pressure.  Suisham is infamous in Washington for missing an easy kick against the Saints and shanking two easy ones in the playoffs for Dallas.  He kicked the game winning 41 yarder in OT against the Bills so I’m willing to chalk his previous failures up to playing for cursed franchises.  Yeah, he had a shaky Super Bowl but a 52 yarder isn’t automatic for any kicker so I fully expect him to be back next year.

The punting situation is a little more interesting.  Daniel Sepulveda, who suffered his second season-ending injury in three years, is a free agent.  His replacement, Jeremy Kapinos, was adequate at best.  Then you have to factor in that the Steelers used a 4th round draft pick on Sepulveda.  Kevin Colbert may re-sign him just to prove he didn’t waste that pick.  Obviously I don’t have access to Sepulveda’s medical reports but if he’s healthy, I would imagine he’ll be back.  Otherwise, the job is likely wide open to whomever the Steelers bring into camp this fall.

I cannot finish this post without talking about actual football players so let’s talk returners.  The three-headed monster of Manny Sanders, Antonio Brown, and Antwaan Randle-El shared duties at various points throughout the year.  We’ll eliminate ARE from this discussion because he’s basically the football version of a DH.  Or, in his case, Designated Fair Catcher.

Which leaves us with the youngsters.  Sanders began the year as a return man and handled the duties fairly well.  Then Brown was given a shot and responded with an 89 kickoff return for a touchdown.  By the end of the season, Brown had “won” the job and I expect that to continue going forward.  He narrowly missed breaking a few after that and his 27 yard return in the AFC Championship Game was crucial in sealing the victory.

Oh, one final point about special teams.  Mike Tomlin has learned from previous years where he refused to have “special teams specialists” and would cut guys who excelled as gunners because they couldn’t play during the game.  A big part of our improved coverage this year was because of guys like Anthony Madison and Arnaz Battle.  Although one guy who better not be here next year is Keyaron Fox.  Fox’s dumbass antics in the Super Bowl severely hampered Big Ben’s chance to perform the superhuman heroics only he can perform.  It was not his first offense as his dumbass penalty in the Ravens game was what pushed the team back inside their 5 where a few plays later Ben was sacked and fumbled.  If your only job is to be a special teams ace and you suck at it, pack your bags for Kansas City because that crap don’t fly in the ‘Burgh.


Breaks down as follows:  Kickers: C+ (Skippy gets an F, Suisham gets a B+), Punters: C  Returners: B+ and Coverage: B+

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  • Tom G

    Suisam – I really like him and am pulling for him. But, I have serious doubts about his clutch performance. (given your examples above, and the fact that his miss in the Super Bowl was a mile off target)

    Sepulvida – great punter, but I don’t understand all these injuries. I mean really, he’s not getting hit or anything but he’s out two seasons for knee injuries? What gives there?

    I agree – Fox has got to go. What kind of idiot can’t control himself during the most important game of the year?
    Take your anger issues elsewher.

    I hope they keep Randel El, Brown and Sanders. I love those guys. Randel El made some key receptions during the season and during the Super Bowl.



    • chris

      Sepulveda isn’t actually that good of a punter. He was having a good season this year but his career averages are fairly mediocre. Certainly not worthy of a 4th round pick.

      I agree on ARE. I think the Steelers expected more from him this year but the two rooks came along so fast, it ended up eating into his playing time. I think they’ll keep him around as veteran presence at least since they still have one more year on his contract.

      • Tom G

        I really wanted to see a few more gadget plays this year with having ARE back.

  • Hennessy

    Great breakdown for the first installment of the Report Card. I like the concept too, good guidance for a thorough review.
    I think Sanders and Brown will prove to be the next big thing – they both showed a lot of Pro-Caliber football skills this year, and will only get better. With Hines on the cusp of retirement and Randle-El walking into his decline, I’m sure we’ll see those two young guys back on the roster.
    Agreed on your comment about Sepulveda. I would like to think he had 2 unfortunate incidents that put him on the sidelines, but he’s starting to smell like a Seuce Staley injury risk. He’s a great punter and if healthy I would love to see him kicking footballs at the point for a long time – but they really need to (if they already have not) decide whether he is an injury farm or if he just got unlucky twice. Either way we need something better than a Kapinos shelling out punts for us.
    I also am keeping my eye on Stevenson Sylvester. I originally thought Tomlin kept him around as a special teams specialist (which I completely agree with his decisions/lessons in having that asset), but he has shown promise and worthiness of being the next in-house-groomed I/OLB. He unleashed fury a couple times this season, and it would be great to see him make his way to the Defensive unit.
    I really want to see focus on the kick returners. If Manny and Brown are going to be groomed into our next wideouts, we can’t have them bearing the brunt of that duty. Not that it has not happened before (read: Devin Hester), but it usually doesn’t work out having a player as a threat when splitting those jobs. I would be looking for someone late in the draft that has an explosive return game, and hire them for that job full time. We haven’t had a game-changer at that position for a while now.
    As for Suisham, I think the guy deserves another shot. Aside from the fact that the 52 yarder missed by 53 yards left – he has been pretty consistent. I’d give him a few more shots at winning/losing the game through the (hopefully) 2012 season, and if he cant produce it’s and easy enough position to replace.
    Looking forward to the next one – thanks for keeping my mind off of the lack of football with interesting reads!
    P.S.: I was sad to see our last battle be taken down, it was a rather good read to get a few chuckles at!

    • chris

      Good analysis, Hennessey. I like Sanders a little more as a receiver than Brown (here’s hoping his injury isn’t serious) but I think the wide outs are good for the near future. And I think Sylvester and Worilds may turn out to be good ones at some point. Have to hand it to Colbert for last year’s draft!

      PS: Yeah, evidently the skank’s dad is threatening to sue people who publish her picture/name, etc. The network was a little concerned about it so in the name of erring on the side of caution, it seemed prudent to just remove the post altogether.

  • Bill

    Great points as a follow up to the great points Chris already made. One thing I have debated bringing up about Suisham. If you go back and rewatch that 52 yard miss in the SB, check out the hold. I’m not talking about some Ace Ventura laces out mistake but it really looked to me like the hold was at a much bigger angle than Suisham usually kicks off of. The ground side of the ball was angled to the left. Way left. I really think thats why he missed. Not making excuses but as you said Hennessey during the year he was what 14 of 15. Hate to see him go to waste.

    • Hennessy

      Good call on the hold. I didn’t see that the first go-around, I was presumably too worked up and focused on the “where in the #$&*! was he kicking that one to”!? I pulled a clip of it, and you are right… the hold was at a pretty steep angle for any kicker’s preference. Nice eagle-eye.
      I have to give it to him though – did you see where the ball ended up? Even with that crappy hold and all the SB pressure on his shoulders, he pounded that damn thing into the first row of on-field seating. Kid’s got a leg on him. I would like to see a better kickoff game come out of him, but he did a so-so job and was a huge improvement on Reed’s recent performances on that front.
      Guess we’ll see – but I think he’s shown enough to hang around into next season.

    • chris

      Great pick-up, Bill. I didn’t catch that either. Although it still doesn’t explain why his extra point went completely sideways in exactly the same fashion. The turf was kinda crappy (people were losing footing, remember Ben jacking up his knee) so I thought that may have something to do with it.

      All that said, 50+ yarders aren’t gimmes for even the best field goal kickers. Even though the Steelers did sign a kicker to the practice squad, I don’t think he’s in danger of losing his job (remember, they bring multiple kickers in to camp every year ala Piotr Czech) unless he beats up a towel dispenser between now and camp.

  • Todd

    On the subject of breaking down plays after-the-fact, if you look at the Mendenhall fumble you’ll notice (if my memory serves) that Legursky misses his block, causing Mendenhall to turn to his right to protect the ball…which put the ball right in line for Matthews’ shoulder to punch it out. Just saying, that was our drive to go ahead and the momentum swung on that play. Makes me think about having Pouncey in there…and makes me ask myself, what if???

    • chris

      Yeah, Todd, I actually noted that in the comments of my Super Bowl recap. It’s a fair point but as I said then, the bottom line is you have to hold on to the ball. Linemen (especially our linemen) miss blocks all the time, it’s on the RB (and occasionally QB, *COUGH*THROWITAWAYBEN*COUGH*) to get tackled for a loss but not cough up the football.