September 9, 2012; Denver, CO, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown (84) runs with the ball after making a catch during the first quarter against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

Can The Steelers Special Teams Make a Difference in 2013?

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Steelers Special Teams.  What do you think about how they contributed to the Steelers 8-8 season in 2012?  Well, the writing might have been on the wall when Head Coach Mike Tomlin fired Special Teams Coordinator Al Everest after two preseason games.   At the time, as is typical, Tomlin declined to elaborate, according to Gary Dulac’s article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and only said:

We have to decided to go in a different direction with respect to the coaching of our special teams.”

Tomlin appointed assistant Special Teams Coordinator Amos Jones the position for the rest of the season and chaos seemingly ensued – at least in my opinion.

Shaun Suisham is a huge bright spot on special teams in 2012 and he is the only special teams member who contributed offensively.  His field goal attempt/completion percentage is 90%.  He missed three field goal attempts and, if I remember right, one is Tomlin’s fault because he asked Suisham to kick from beyond his range.  So, this blog isn’t about the kicker or the punter.  It’s about the return portion of Steelers Special Teams.

I said in a post the other day that special teams had fumbles or problems and a reader commented that there were no fumbles on special teams last year.  I beg to differ.  There weren’t a lot, but in the midst of the other fumbles, they just added to the piles. I went back through and looked at the play-by-play logs on NFL.com and came up with some numbers.  I am not claiming these are 100% accurate because I might have missed something on this initial look-through.  It’s hard to find special teams stats already tallied.  I found some stats from Yahoo! Sports that ranks the Steelers as 9th out of 32 because they averaged 25.3 yards per kick/punt return.  The Ravens averaged 27.3 yards, but stats can be manipulated to say whatever you want.  Football Outsiders boosts “Innovative Statistics” but I don’t really understand them.  It hard to quantify how special teams contribute unless there are offensive scores.  The Steelers had zero scores from special teams.  Well, actually, they had two, both from Antonio Brown, but both were negated by penalties.  <Sigh>  Ultimately, it’s not the special teams coordinators job to get the scores.  That’s gravy.  His job is to get the Steelers in a position to start an offensive series that will result in a score.  It’s fun to watch the ball get returned for a TD after a kick-off or a punt, but not essential to the game, right?

So, I started to wonder if the rule change about where kick-offs are initiated (now at the 35 yard line) had an affect on the game.  I remember hearing an interview during the owners meeting in Feb or Mar of this year that they feel this rule change made the kick-off returns safer.  I wonder if there are stats on the number of touchbacks during the season and if those climbed quite a bit from 2012 to 2013.  I haven’t found any yet.  When I looked at the first game of the Steelers season against the Broncos last year, the Broncos kicker was putting the ball in the end zone consistently – the game had 5 touchbacks out of 8 kick-offs/punts.  That game was somewhat of an anomaly compared to the others.  Maybe it was the thin air at the mile high stadium.   I found that as far as Steelers games were returned, the average was one or two touchbacks from the opposing kicker, but nothing that really seemed to put the Steelers at a disadvantage – in my opinion.

The workhorses on the returns were Chris Rainey and Antonio Brown.  I had not followed the numbers for Rainey closely for special teams, but he had a good year if you are looking at his total yardage.  Unfortunately, none of his gains resulted in putting him in the end zone for a return.  I’m not trying to open the discussion of whether or not the Steelers should have released Rainey or not, but he did contribute on special teams.  He had one “muffed” catch but recovered it before the opponent, so there isn’t much to gripe about in that area.

The Steelers seem to recognize that they need to make changes after their mediocre season and special teams is included.  Amos Jones has moved on and the Steelers hired Danny Smith, formerly of the Washington Redskins.  Based on a few stories that I found, Danny Smith’s methods invite commentary, at the very least.  (Check out Matt Terl’s piece:  The Danny Smith Paradox).  I don’t think the Steelers would tolerate behavior that isn’t in line with the overall team goals and not backed by the head coach, so I would be surprised if he is controversial while he is with the Steelers.  However, Tomlin was clearly looking for someone different.  But, will it make a difference?  I guess only time will tell.

Everyone seems to think, including LaRod Stephens-Howling, that he was signed to be a workhorse for special teams.  It has been at least a year since Stephens-Howling was on special teams for the Arizona Cardinals.  He is in his fifth year with the league and is 26 years old. Not an aging veteran by any means, but certainly experienced.  His rushing yards aren’t at the Adrian Peterson level, but I am not well-versed in how he was used in Arizona.  Arizona was certainly dysfunctional last year with a quarterbacks coming and going like there was a revolving door on the field.  This may be Stephens-Howling’s opportunity to shine.  I hope so.

For 2013, I hope Suisham continues his outstanding FG completion rate.  It was nice not to have to hold my breath when they brought him in to kick the ball.  For the return crew, well, the jury remains out on this too.  I’m not sure Danny Smith or LaRod Stephens-Howling is a good fit for the Steelers based on what I have read so far, but who knows?  Different players, different management can change a lot of things.  One thing is for sure, without Chris Rainey, the Steelers can’t just work on improving what they did last year.  They need a new plan for special teams to contribute to the offensive gains and, ultimately, the wins.

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