Steelers return game could use an upgrade
There are all kinds of hidden yards in NFL games. A team might rank among the best teams in the league in moving the ball, but it might not translate into scoring for a variety of reasons. One of them is average starting field position.
So while the Steelers again ranked among the best teams in the NFL in total offense (7th) it wasn’t reflected in scoring (tied for 11th). Average to below average efficiency in the red zone is one reason for the scoring struggles, but field position is another.
The Steelers were 27th in the NFL in average starting field position after kickoffs because their kickoff return game struggled. The Steelers’ average starting field position was the 24.3-yard line, according to Football Outsiders.
In short, the Steelers had to travel farther than most teams to accumulate their points.
If the Steelers simply knelt on the ball when it was kicked into the end zone they’d improve their field position without much effort. It’s like signing your name on the SAT. It’s free yards.
Yet the Steelers continually gave their returners the green light to take the ball out of the end zone, and they continually failed to get to the 25. Many times, they failed to get to the 20, or even the 15. And other times their undisciplined blockers would get penalties that set them back even farther.
It’s not like there was much incentive to bringing the ball out of the end zone. The longest return of the year by a Steelers returner was 44 yards and the returners averaged just 21.5 per return, which ranked 17th in the league.
Sammie Coates was the best of the bunch with a 25.0 return average, but the Steelers could not find a way for kickers to kick to him. Fitzgerald Toussaint, who was described as the blocking back by head coach Mike Tomlin, had more than twice as many returns as Coates and averaged 21.4 yards per return.
In the playoffs, Justin Gilbert almost cost the Steelers the game against the Chiefs when he ran sideways on a kickoff return. Only a clutch third-down conversion pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Antonio Brown allowed the Steelers to escape with a win and advance to the AFC championship game.
The kickoff coverage team struggled as well. The Steelers were 30th in average per return (24.7). Only Minnesota and Green Bay gave up more yards per return.
While the kickoff return and kickoff teams were the most noticeable problems for the Steelers’ special teams the other units all combined to make the Steelers average overall. In the highly respected Dallas Morning News special teams rankings the Steelers were 20th. Football Outsiders ranked them 16th.
The punt return unit was the definition of average. The Steelers were ranked 16th in punt returns with an 8.4-yard average. Longtime returner Antonio Brown had as many fair catches as returns (15) and his longest return was 33 yards as he failed to produce the big special teams that had been his calling card in other years.
More average: Second-year punter Jordan Berry was 15th in the NFL in punting average, 16th in net average and 15th in pinning opponent’s inside the 20-yard line. The one unit that earned a top-10 special teams ranking was the punt coverage unit, which was ranked ninth with a 9.4 average per return.
Chris Boswell and Greg Warren were the saving graces for the special teams units. Warren, the veteran long snapper, once again went unnoticed, which is a good thing. He never makes mistakes, and the Steelers were smart to sign him to another one-year contract after the season ended.
Boswell was perfect on extra points (36 for 36) and made 21 of his 25 field-goal attempts. Most importantly for the Steelers, he was clutch when it mattered. He was 6 for 6 on field goal attempts in the 18-16 victory at Kansas City in an AFC divisional round playoff game.
Since being signed early in the 2015 season, Boswell is 50 for 57 on field goal attempts during the regular season and 15 for 15 in the postseason.
If only the other players on the Steelers’ special teams did their jobs as well as Boswell and Warren do theirs.