The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: How will the Steelers’ special teams be affected by this year’s offseason process?
It goes without saying that when it comes to a special teams ‘roster’, it’s a rather fungible group of players, and no position coach has a wider variety of pieces to work with from year to year than does the special teams coach—in the Steelers’ case, Danny Smith.
Pittsburgh gave Smith reason to smile early in the offseason when they kept around a few of his favorites. They tendered fullback Roosevelt Nix as an exclusive rights free agent player, who worked his way into the rotation as a core player on several special teams units, soon after the season ended.
Just before the start of the new league year, the Steelers also re-signed two of their most important special teams players, special teams captain Robert Golden and core punt and kick coverage standout Darrius Heyward-Bey, who also plays on a variety of units.
Just for some perspective, Golden logged 310 special teams snaps last year, or about 70 percent of the team’s total special teams snaps. Nobody had more. Heyward-Bey logged 173 snaps, much of that coming later in the season when he became a fixture as a gunner.
For his part, Nix logged 243 special teams snaps, the fifth-most total on the team, and that is with him missing the last game and a half of the season, while logging fewer snaps earlier in the year.
The Steelers can’t ignore the fact that they lost two of their core special teams players in Sean Spence (253 snaps) and Terence Garvin (225 snaps, despite missing several games), but Antwon Blake had already played a reduced role on special teams, primarily as a punt jammer, logging just 90 snaps.
The reality is that there is turnover every season. new faces—mostly rookies—come in and contribute. But two players who can step in and help fill the void left by Spence, Garvin, and Blake could be 2015 draft picks—Doran Grant and Anthony Chickillo. If L.J. Fort makes the roster in place of Spence and Garvin, he, too, has been a career special teams player who would help keep the Steelers coverage units, at least, above average.