Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ross Ventrone earned himself a spot on the practice squad during the preseason because of his excellent play on special teams. When Shamarko Thomas went down with an injury, the team called him up.
Even though that move cost them rookie fifth-round offensive lineman Wesley Johnson, there’s little argument that Ventrone is having a bigger impact on the team, and its success, than the former would have had. He has been a strong contributor to the Steelers’ special team efforts over the past three weeks, registering four tackles—though with only one Brad Wing punt in the last game, he didn’t have as much room to make an impact.
It’s beginning to feel as though he won’t be going anywhere, despite the fact that it means the Steelers will be carrying six safeties and 12 defensive backs in total, because his special teams contributions have had that kind of impact.
But he hasn’t been the only player offering standout performances on special teams. In particular, cornerback Antwon Blake—outside of the two penalties—has been crucial on both the punt and kickoff units, registering a combined seven tackles and assists thus far.
And Thomas may have been the team’s best special teams player before he was injured. While he registered only one tackle, he did a remarkable job of getting down the field and forcing returners to signal for a fair catch.
The Steelers do not have a kicker with the strongest leg in the league, and that leaves them toward the bottom of the league in terms of percentage of kickoffs that result in touchbacks. But they do have one of the best coverage units, averaging only 20.1 yards per kick return, which ranks third-best in the league.
On the other side of the ball, the team does not have the best return units. After all, Dri Archer held the lowest kick return average in the league among players that were the primary kick returner, before he was benched this week. He averaged just 17.9 yards on nine kick returns, with a long of 23, never reaching the 20-yard line.
Antonio Brown, meanwhile, is having a merely pedestrian season as a returner, averaging just 7.9 yards per punt return after breaking one for 36 yards in the season opener. That has far less to do with his own performance, however, than it does the team’s blocking.
And that also applies on the kick returns, because as poor as Archer may have been, it’s also true that the blocking up front regularly allowed a rusher through that Archer was unable to escape from on most of his returns.
As a result, it’s been difficult for the offense to get off to a good start in terms of field position. The Steelers rank 24th in the league, according to Football Outsiders, in terms of starting field position, averaging a starting point of 25.51 yards.
In part because of that, the Steelers average the sixth-most yards per drive, but only the 21st-most points per drive. So while the team has overall been able to cover kicks well, they’re still very much looking for answers when it comes to returning them.