As we finally move into talking about Sunday’s Divisional Game against the Denver Broncos, I’ve never felt so far removed from the actual game than I have been this past week, we’ll be talking a ton about the offensive and defensive battles on each side. The Pittsburgh Steelers’ run game against that vaunted Broncos’ front seven. Peyton Manning trying to pick apart Pittsburgh’s defense.
But if you know me, you know it all comes back to special teams. And the Steelers’ season-strong group could again be tested.
Look no further than the injury report. Robert Golden. Vince Williams. Will Johnson. All three key components on this third phase. Granted, all were limited, a decent sign for their chances to play, but if they miss, it will put the team in an uncomfortable spot.
We’ve written about it a million times but the impact isn’t there until it’s felt. Golden has been the team’s starting upback on punt coverage, the only one to take snaps there all season long. The quarterback of that unit, whose IQ was needed against an aggressive Cincinnati Bengals’ bunch on Saturday. Based on what I saw in training camp and in game, no other player on this team – 53 man roster or practice squad – have ever taken a snap to replace him. It’s a big challenge if he misses with a shoulder injury, and that doesn’t even factor in his efforts on the kick coverage and return teams.
Williams, of course is one of the top, core special teamers, just like Golden. A tone setter, a big hitter, and one of the top threats opposing teams circle. Seeing him double-teamed isn’t an uncommon sight. He, Roosevelt Nix, and Terence Garvin all lined up next to each other on kick coverage, Three Musketeers who would hit you in the mouth. If Williams misses, Garvin is the lone ranger left.
The injuries, before and in-game, have stretched this team to its limits. Many haven’t noticed and that’s a testament to Danny Smith coaching this unit up well. But players have been thrown onto units they have barely or never played this season. And trust me, I know, because I’m one of the few crazy enough to chart it. Ross Cockrell on kick coverage. Anthony Chickillo and Jesse James on the wedge. Arthur Moats running down punts. Those are new roles to most of them and they haven’t missed a beat. But the further into the playoffs, the more competitive teams faced, the higher the stakes, the more tiring the grind.
Ask Clemson how important special teams is. Alabama blocks a field goal, recovers an onside kick, and houses a kickoff for a touchdown. Ask them how they won that game, and special teams is the first thing people will talk about. Of course, that’s all after the fact, and that’s not going to fly with coaches.
So monitor that injury report. Not just for Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown. But for the other guys. Those are the ones who could decide the game.