Last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers kickoff coverage team allowed an average of 22.3 yards per return and that was good for a 10th overall ranking. While those raw stats look good on paper, I’m about to show you why those numbers are really just fluff and why Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith has to improve the unit in 2014.
For starters, the Steelers were tied for last in the league in 2013 with the Tennessee Titans when it comes to average starting field position following kickoffs. That average field position was the opponents 25 yard-line, according to Pro Football Reference.
If that’s not enough, 34% of all Steelers kickoffs resulted in the opposition having starting field position at their own 25 yard-line or better and that was by far the worst percentage in the league. To make matters even worse, 15.1% of all Steelers kickoffs resulted in the opposition having starting field position at their own 30 yard-line or better and that was the second worst percentage in the league to only the Titans.
So what caused this?
For starters, Steelers kicker Shaun Suisham only had 24 touchbacks last season and that 27.9% was good for fourth-worst in the league when compared to all kickers with 14 or more kickoffs. 64% of Suisham’s kickoffs were returned in 2013 and that stat again ranked him fourth-worst in the league. Three of Suisham’s kickoffs also went out of bounds and his average distance on kickoffs was just 62.6 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
As far as the kick coverage goes, all you really need to know is that Suisham was credited with six total tackles on kickoffs and that tied him with Robert Golden, Shamarko Thomas, Antwon Blake and Terence Garvin for the team lead in that stat. While I assume that Smith applauds Suisham’s efforts, he surely doesn’t want his kicker having to make so many tackles.
Currently, the Steelers have yet to bring in any competition for Suisham during the offseason and that goes against what they have done in the past. If they do wind up signing another kicker between now and the start of training camp, one would think that it will be because they want one with a stronger kickoff leg with the hopes that he can be just as accurate as Suisham currently is when it comes to field goal attempts.
Until the league completely does away with kickoffs, kickers that can kick the ball deep will still have plenty of value. While giving an opponent 10 extra yards on only 15% of all kickoffs might not seem like all that big of deal, that’s potentially one more first down an offense might need in order to score.