Pittsburgh Steelers 2012 Training Camp Preview: Special Teams
A new offensive coordinator? An aging defense? No wonder the Pittsburgh Steelers special teams has been a virtual non-topic this offseason. That does not make it any less important.
Just as with the offense and defense, the Steelers' special teams will have competition during training camp and several questions that need answers.
The good news is that since Al Everest took over following the 2009 season, the Steelers' special teams have developed into a good unit with a strong return game and coverage units.
There will be a different feel for 2012 as Antonio Brown will shift his focus to the receiver position leaving an opening in the kick and punt return game.
Daniel Sepulveda will also not be in camp as he had one knee injury too many and was not re-signed by Pittsburgh.
There will be plenty to watch come training camp as roster battles will be held for the starting punter and return game as well as rookies being broken into the coverage units.
Here's what to look when watching special teams come training camp.
No one will confuse Shaun Suisham with the elite kickers in the league, particularly after last season.
Suisham was dismal, converting on 23-of-31 field goals. The 74.2 percent conversion rate tied for last in the entire league.
Though he does not have a booming leg, Suisham averaged 66.7 yards per kickoff, but his 28 touchbacks ranked only 24th in the league.
Suisham did not have the type of season that is expected from a veteran kicker last year, and it could be argued that bringing in another veteran kicker would have been worthwhile.
That does not appear to be the case, as Suisham seems to be locked into his job for another year.
Pittsburgh signed rookie Daniel Hrapmann from Southern Mississippi.
Hrapmann improved his kickoffs from 2009-2011, increasing from a 60.30 yard average to 63.73 yard average last year, still below Suisham's numbers.
As a junior, Hrapmann made 26-of-30 field goals and was named first-time All-America by the Walter Camp foundation and second-team All-America by CBSSports.com.
Hrapmann did not match that success as a senior, converting 23-of-34 field goals and will have an uphill battle at training camp.
The two kickers have to compete, but Hrapmann appears to be a camp body to share some of the kicking load. Suisham should be safe for another year.
After playing in four regular season games for the Steelers in 2010, Jeremy Kapinos showed enough to get an invitation to training camp last year and gave Daniel Sepulveda a good competition, but it wasn't enough.
However, another injury to Sepulveda and Kapinos got the job, and he will be looking to keep it.
Kapinos played in eight regular season games last year and averaged 45 yards per punt, which would have put him right in the middle of the league in terms of average. His 38.3 net average placed Kapinos in the bottom third of the NFL.
While both statistics ranked below what Sepulveda provided last season, Kapinos does not have a track record of major knee injuries; Sepulveda does.
Kapinos also does not have the luxury of competing against a long shot like Suisham does. Instead, rookie Drew Butler will provide stiff competition.
In 2009, he led the nation with a 48.1 yards per punt average and averaged over 44 yards per punt in 2010 and 2011. He also has experience in holding, which is a requirement for Steelers punters.
As these two players compete in camp, besides distance, keep an eye on the hang-time. The longer the ball is in the air, the less of a chance of a big return.
A punter may not be the star of the team, but they are a key component in the battle of field position, and Kapinos and Butler will be involved in an underrated camp battle.
It was not long ago that the Steelers coverage units were a liability. Since Al Everest has been in Pittsburgh, it has been a strength, and Stevenson Sylvester has been a big part of that.
It’s so vital to the game,” Sylvester told Steelers.com. “Field position is huge at this level. People overlook that."
“Coach Al Everest tells us we send a message and whatever message you start the game with, it sets the tone. That could set the tone for the entire game for everybody to come out fired up and make the same plays.”
Last season, the Steelers kick coverage team allowed 23.7 yards per return, which ranked them 16th in the league. They were better against punt returns, allowing only 8.4 yards per return, ranking them 12th in the league.
Those numbers could improve this year with a healthier group of special teams players.
Curtis Brown, a special teams star, and Chris Carter should be healthy, and they will both play vital roles in the coverage units.
Other players to look for besides them and Sylvester are Cortez Allen, Ryan Mundy and Will Allen.
These veterans have all proven to be solid players on special teams, but of the greatest interest is how the rookies perform.
It is tough for rookies to crack the starting lineup, so they must make their mark on special teams. Success on this unit is the first sign of success on the field.
Any rookie that stands out on special teams has a great chance at making the final roster. When it comes down to the final few spots, if someone can play a position and perform well on special teams, chances are, the job will be theirs.
Pittsburgh had one of the most dangerous players in the league last year in Antonio Brown, as he became the first player in NFL history to go over 1,000 receiving yards and 1,000 return yards in the same season.
Brown ranked 10th in punt return average (10.8 yards per return) and 10th in kickoff return average (27.3 yards per return) en route to over 1,062 yards. He also added a punt return.
The excellent field position that Brown put the Steelers offense in will be tough to replace, but there are a number of quality candidates who will try to take over his role as return man.
Emmanuel Sanders is the most likely veteran to earn the position. He has had limited experience in the pros as a returner, but has had moderate success.
In two seasons, Sanders has averaged 11.7 yards per return on punts and 24.0 yards per return on kick offs.
However, if Sanders has a big role as the slot receiver, the Steelers may look toward a rookie, and the two players with the best chance at winning the job are fifth-round draft choice Chris Rainey and rookie free agent Marquis Maze.
Both players can be dynamic returners and will have plenty of opportunities in camp and the preseason.
Rainey averaged 9.0 yards per punt return while at the University of Florida, but did score two touchdowns and 25.2 yards per return on kicks.
The speed, quickness and ability to change directions all favor Rainey in the return game. He is a versatile player who can be explosive with the ball in his hands, and this would provide him with yet another opportunity to make a big play.
Maze will really have to make a splash if he is to beat out Sanders and Rainey, as he has a slight build for a receiver and may have trouble playing the position in the pro game. It is difficult to crack the Steelers roster as exclusively a return man, but it has been done before (see Stefan Logan).
At Alabama, Maze averaged 12.7 yards per punt return and had one touchdown and averaged 26.2 yards per kick return.
Maze's specialty is punt returns, and he is fairly inexperienced in kick returns, with only 21 in college. He will have to show that he can do both if he wants to make the Steelers roster.
Pittsburgh is not without options, though, as this figures to be an intriguing battle to watch during training camp.
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