The Pittsburgh Steelers were an underachieving team in 2009. Most of the failures from that season were related to three diverse issues: injuries to key defensive players, a weak and poorly prepared offensive line, and letdowns by the special teams.
This article will explore the latter issue, particularly looking towards what changes we might see from the Steelers’ kickoff team in 2009.
Last year the Steelers were the worst kickoff unit in the NFL, by far. I would venture to guess that they were the worst unit the league has seen in quite a few years. Decades, perhaps.
How ugly did things get for the kickoff team in 2009? Plenty ugly. The Steelers ranked 32nd in the NFL in average kickoff distance at 59.8 yards and 32nd in touchbacks at 3.7 percent.
Their four TD returns were also a league worst. Similarly, the Steelers ranked 26th in average return surrendered at 24.3 yards against. That is a rather spectacularly bad result, considering that the teams that traditionally give up the longest average returns are those with the longest kickoffs.
The Steelers’ problems with kickoffs begin with Jeff Reed. Reed is a valuable commodity: Heinz Field is reputed to be one of the most difficult fields for placekickers, with unpredictable, swirling winds and often lousy footing. Considering those conditions, Reed has been a remarkably effective placekicker in Pittsburgh.
However, Reed has the NFL’s weakest leg when it comes to kickoffs. Reed recorded only three touchbacks in 81 kickoffs, which simply isn’t good enough. By way of comparison, David Buehler of the Dallas Cowboys achieved 29 touchbacks in 79 kickoffs.
Last season Dallas employed Buehler as a kickoff specialist, with Nick Folk handling placekicking duties.
The Pittsburgh Steelers should consider using a kickoff specialist in place of Reed handling those duties.
In fact, while I think that Stefan Logan did an admirable job as a return specialist last year, I believe that there would be a net gain in terms of field position for the Steelers if they replaced Logan with a kickoff specialist similar to Buehler.
Emmanuel Sanders, Mike Wallace, and Keenan Lewis come to mind as possible replacements for Logan. All are expected to earn a roster spot on their own merits and probably can provide return numbers similar to Logan’s.
Even if they are not quite his equal, I believe that their return skills are strong enough for the Steelers to consider using Logan’s roster spot on a kickoff specialist.
The problems with kickoffs started with the short kicks provided by Reed, but things all too frequently went downhill from there.
The team’s kickoff coverage was abysmal. Giving up four return TDs simply emphasizes how atrocious their coverage units were in 2009. Fans became so skittish watching the Steelers try to cover kickoffs that they can easily recall numerous other returns that seemed inches from going all the way as well.
Kickoff return touchdowns are momentum changers. They sap the energy from the team that surrenders the big play and energize the opponent.
For some reason last season the kick coverage team seemed out of sync. Too frequently players wandered out of their lanes or failed to hold containment and missed tackles when they were in the right position.
Jeff Reed came under considerable heat for his pathetic attempts at tackling kick returners, but the truth is that Reed should never be put in such a position.
Would I like to see Reed be able to tackle enthusiastically and effectively the way Steeler punter Daniel Sepulveda does? Hell yes! But realistically, that’s not Reed’s job. There are 10 other Steelers out there who are messing up as a unit if Reed even figures into the play at all.
Those kick return woes cost special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky his job at the end of the season. New coordinator Al Everest has been given a mandate to clean up the coverage units first and foremost.
To aid Everest in this task, the Steelers drafted a number of players who might be expected to see special team duties. Young linebacker prospects Jason Worilds and Thaddeus Gibson will be expected to bring energy and tackling ability to the coverage units while they learn the Steeler linebacking trade.
With some new players, a new coordinator, and a renewed commitment to effective coverage units, we can expect considerable improvement on the kickoff team. It’s not like things could get much worse.
Still, I would prefer to see a kickoff specialist employed to hammer the ball deep in the end zone as often as possible. I would much rather see Joshua Cribbs kneeling down to concede a touchback eight yards deep in the end zone than be fielding a Jeff Reed kickoff on his own 10-yard line!
A kickoff specialist combined with better coverage work could give the Steelers an average improvement in the area of 10 to 15 yards on every kickoff. Considering that they kick off five times per game on average, that 50 to 75 yards of improvement will put the Steelers defense in consistently better field position.
Isn’t that part of the Steelers’ mantra for 2010? You know: Play a conservative running and field-position game and rely on a healthy defense to put the ball back in the hands of the offense.
If winning the battle of field position is important to the Steelers, then beefing up the kick coverage units is a step in the right direction. Adding a kickoff specialist might be yet another step.
The Steelers are primed to rebound after losing a number of close games last year. For the first time in a number of years they will be underestimated by some opponents. Curing their coverage woes is a necessary step towards returning to the playoffs and chasing down a seventh Lombardi Trophy for the NFL's most storied franchise.