Safety Ross Ventrone was a fringe roster hopeful last year when he signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers, hoping to earn his keep on special teams. A missed play or two during the preseason quashed any hopes of making the team in 2013, however, not to mention the fact that the Steelers already had four safeties on the roster.
In 2014, the road to the roster was even steeper after Will Allen threw his hat into the ring, but Ventrone played so well during the preseason that the Steelers chose to keep him on the practice squad.
When Shamarko Thomas went down with a hamstring injury, the Steelers called him up, and he’s been a fixture on special teams ever since—of course, when he, too, was free from hamstring injuries.
Against the New York Jets, in fact, Pittsburgh was down to just three safeties with Troy Polamalu also injured, which prompted the Steelers to sign Jordan Dangerfield, a training camp standout, to the practice squad, leaving the team with seven safeties in total, at least for now.
Though Polamalu and Thomas remained out, Ventrone did return on Monday night against the Tennessee Titans, and though he didn’t record a tackle, he was a fixture on three of the four primary special teams units, covering both punts and kickoffs as well as blocking on punt returns.
In reality, most of the action occurred away from his side of the field, and Shaun Suisham’s squib kicks complicated his task in getting down the field. Jackie Battle’s return to the 33-yard line after a pick six early in the game, for example, only reached the 11-yard line and went up the left sideline. One thing that he can be credited for in these situations is that he gets himself around the ball in a hurry.
The Titans attacked Ventrone with a vice on the Steelers’ first punt along the right sideline, but he was able to beat the inside jammer to the center of the field as Brad Wing’s punt traveled to the left side of the field, playing through an obvious hold as the jammer tugged at his arm.
Antwon Blake, the left side gunner, got down the field first, but could not induce a fair catch, and was pushed past the returner. As Ventrone caught up to the play, the returner found himself with the safety to his left and Vince Williams to his right, bottled up either way. He took the right side and was held to just a one-yard return.
Ventrone was less successful as a jammer himself, however. On his first go around, he and Brice McCain could not abate the Tennessee gunner and induced a fair catch, although it was just a 32-yard punt.
On two later punts, he played different roles. On Antonio Brown’s return that was negated by an illegal block in the back, for example, he set up as a vice jammer before moving to the middle of the field and wound up throwing a block on the up back as Brown navigated around the left edge.
On another punt return, he lined up in the middle and attempted to block the punt, gaining penetration on a punt that ended up traveling just 29 yards out of bounds.
After Le’Veon Bell’s touchdown, however, Ventrone might be fairly credited with a missed tackle on Bishop Sankey’s return out to the 32-yard line. It was a diving effort at about the 22, and he may have even been held, so it’s a tough sell, but he did attempt the tackle and failed to bring the returner down.
It wasn’t the most exciting or successful return for one of the team’s best special teams players—and, really, outside of the kick return unit, it wasn’t a very good day overall—but when Ventrone and Thomas get back up to speed, hopefully they will be able to resupply that aspect of the game with greater stability again.