Oftentimes, special teams is a forgotten phase of the game. That won’t be the case for the Pittsburgh Steelers after a disappointing performance in this area last season.
In a stunning move, Mike Tomlin relieved Al Everest of his duties and promoted Amos Jones to special teams assistant. Now that he has joined the Arizona Cardinals, it is up to new special teams coordinator Danny Smith to bolster this phase of the game.
Improving the return game and eliminating mindless penalties will be two of Smith’s priorities. It will also be an opportunity for rookies to prove themselves and make the final roster.
Here’s what to look for when watching the special teams come training camp.
Shaun Suisham's spot at kicker is secure.
Shaun Suisham was one of the bright spots on special teams last season.
He converted 28 of 31 field goals, including a career-long 52-yard field goal. Of his three misses, one came from 54 yards and another from 53 yards. The third miss was in part due to a bad snap from Greg Warren.
One significant weakness is Suisham’s leg strength on kickoffs. His 63.8 yards per kickoff ranked 21st in the league and his 29 touchbacks ranked 23rd.
For the second straight season, Daniel Hrapmann will compete against Suisham.
In his final year of college, Hrapmann averaged 63.73 yards per kickoff. After making 26 of 30 field goals as a junior, he only made 23 of 34 as a senior. He had no kicks in the NFL last season.
Barring an injury, the job is Suisham’s with Hrapmann only providing him with a break from kicking duties during camp.
Drew Butler will compete with Brian Moorman for the punting job.
There will be some real competition at punter this year.
After going uncontested last season, Drew Butler made the roster as a rookie. He demonstrated the ability to be a solid punter but was inconsistent.
Butler averaged 43.8 yards per punt, which ranked him 28th in the league. His 37.8 net average also put him near the bottom of the league.
Not all was bad from Butler. He did have 29 punts downed inside of the 20 and forced 20 fair catches, but he did have six touchbacks.
Rather than settle on Butler, the Steelers signed Brian Moorman just days following the draft. He was released by the Buffalo Bills after three games last season, as he averaged just 32.7 yards per punt.
Moorman played the final 12 games of 2012 in Dallas, and he averaged 44.8 yards per punt with a net average of 38.9 yards. He had 22 punts downed inside the 20, 11 fair catches and only three touchbacks.
Even if Moorman doesn’t win the starting job, he has been a Pro Bowl punter and will at least provide Butler with a strong push to perform.
In the end, the Steelers will have to decide whether to go with youth and potential or with the dependable veteran.
Curtis Brown led the Steelers in special teams tackles last season.
Cleaning up the coverage units with be important for Danny Smith.
The Steelers allowed 24.0 yards per kick return and 10.2 yards per punt return last season, which ranked 17th and 22nd, respectively.
These numbers were not particularly good, and they could be even worse now that several of their top special teams players are gone.
Will Allen, Ryan Mundy and Brandon Johnson were all key members of the coverage units and will have to be replaced this year. Smith will have to depend on the rookies to do that.
Luckily, the Steelers drafted a number of rookies who not only have bright futures on defense, but can make an immediate impact on special teams.
Shamarko Thomas can fly around the field and likes to hit. These are perfect attributes for playing on special teams.
In addition to Thomas, Smith will need the rookie linebackers to contribute. Typically, linebackers who go on to start for the Steelers get their start out on special teams—and oftentimes, they shine.
Jarvis Jones and Vince Williams could be two of the bigger playmakers.
They may limit Jones depending on his role on defense, but Williams will need to make a big impact to help earn a roster spot. The same can be said about cornerback Terry Hawthorne.
The good news is that their leading special teams tackler from last season—Curtis Brown—is returning. He finished the year with 18 tackles, which was third best in the league.
Smith’s cover units in Washington have performed well in recent years. According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, they finished seventh in kick return average allowed last season after leading the league in 2010 and 2011. The Redskins had the third-ranked punt return average allowed last year.
Can Reggie Dunn replicate his kick return skills in the NFL?
The return game was disappointing last season after having one of the best units in 2011. The falloff came in part because of Antonio Brown being limited with his return duties as well as poor blocking.
Pittsburgh ranked ninth with 25.3 yards per kick return and 28th in punt returns with an average of 7.3 yards per return.
Smith will have to find a player to replace Brown returning punts and Chris Rainey returning kicks. He will also have to eliminate the penalties that cost the Steelers yardage and field position.
At one point last year, Mike Tomlin had to put his return units on notice after four penalties cost them 94 yards of field position.
Focus and discipline will be two of the keys to fix this problem. His blocking schemes will be something else to watch.
As far as the competition in the return game, a number of names should come up.
LaRod Stephens-Howling has averaged 24.95 yards per return on 163 career kick returns and three touchdowns. Then there is undrafted rookie free agent Reggie Dunn, who ran the 40-yard dash in less than 4.30 seconds.
He was outstanding on kickoff returns last season, averaging 51.3 yards on 10 returns. Even more impressive were his four kick return touchdowns.
Dunn would be a terrific option if his speed and return skills translate to the NFL.
Rookie Justin Brown will be one name to watch on punt return duty. He has terrific size at 6’3” to play receiver but will have to make the team based on his play on special teams.
He averaged 9.0 yards per punt return in college, including an impressive senior campaign in which he returned 22 punts for an average of 13.6 yards per return and one touchdown.
There will be plenty of competition for these two spots, and it will provide a young player an excellent opportunity to make an NFL roster.