Prior to this past Sunday’s game against the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers had actually been doing a pretty nice job on kickoff coverage, especially considering they ranked toward the bottom of the league in registering touchbacks.
That changed suddenly late in the game when, after a 54-yard touchdown pass and, according to head coach Mike Tomlin, a little bit too much dancing and celebrating, kick returner Jacoby Jones took one out from eight yards deep and brought it to the opposite side of the field for the score.
It was the first touchdown all season that the Steelers had allowed either by an opponent’s defensive or special teams units. In contrast, Pittsburgh has registered a pair of defensive touchdowns off of interceptions and a special teams score on a fumble recovered in the end zone following a muffed punt.
Thanks to Jones, however, the Steelers are now one of just four teams this season to have given up a touchdown on a kick return. That they rank 28th in the league in percentage of kickoffs gone for touchbacks makes them more vulnerable; all four teams to have given up a score rank in the bottom 11 in touchback percentage.
In all, Shaun Suisham has 49 kickoffs on the season, ranking him fifth in the league. His 64.4-yard average, however, ranks him 22nd in that category, though an onside try and a squib kick did not help his average.
The Steelers, however, had been covering those kicks well. Prior to Jones’ 108-yard return, teams had only been averaging about 20.5 yards per return.
On his 26 returned kicks, the Steelers had not allowed one to be returned past the 28-yard line under normal circumstances. A kickoff in Week Four that was booted from their own 20-yard line was fair caught at the 31.
Nine of those returned kicks were stopped prior to the 20-yard line. Seven of them—one from the benefit of a holding call—were stopped inside the 15-yard line, with two inside the 10, and one—due to a muffed catch—at the four.
In fact, excluding the squib kick in the last game that was fielded at the 37-yard line and the onside kick earlier this season, only four of the Steelers’ kickoffs had been returned beyond the 25-yard line, which is quite good for a team that cannot depend on touchbacks.
Thanks to Jones’ return, however, the team’s average return allowed jumped up by nearly four yards to 24.1, taking them from among the best in the league in that category all the way down to the middle of the pack.
Was this simply due to too much excitement and celebration prior to the kickoff that led to a lackadaisical effort on the play? Or was the fact that some of their best special teams players—Shamarko Thomas and Ross Ventrone—were out of the game by that point a bigger factor?
Suisham has kicked the ball off 15 times over the past two games. Five have gone for touchbacks, but nine have advanced beyond the 20-yard line. Whether this is a trend or a fluke remains to be seen.