Punter vs returner. That’s what Danny Smith tells Jordan Berry before each game.
Two weeks in, Berry isn’t just winning that battle. He’s in Mortal Kombat FINISH HIM mode against the returner.
The second-year punter has had a terrific start to the season including his best performance ever last week, averaging 47 yards per punt on eight tries with five possessions starting at or inside the Cincinnati Bengals.
Count Smith as one of the many impressed by his performance.
“He’s really grown as a player,” he said speaking with Bob Labriola on Steelers Nation Radio. “He’s matured. He’s a good player, he’s a good athlete. He’s very strong-legged. It’s just his total game we’re trying to improve on a consistent basis. Right now, it’s on the rise and we expect it to continue. But he’s doing a lot of things well. Now it’s a matter of the consistency and that’s what we’re striving to achieve.”
Berry put all of that on display in the pouring rain at Heinz Field in Sunday’s win, capped by a 58-yard boot in the worst of the weather that pinned Adam Jones to the sideline. Another battle won by the Aussie.
“I’m a big believer, and I met with Jordan prior to the game, people compare punters going into a game. We’re not playing that other punter, to be honest with you. I tell Jordan he’s competing against the returner. He’s not competing against the other punter, he’s got nothing to do with the other punter. He’s got no control over that. But he has a lot of control over the returner. I challenge him to compete against the returner.”
Smith, a well-traveled coach in this league, says it’s an uncommon approach but the one that makes the most sense to him. Whatever the philosophy, it’s working, and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ kicking/punting units are humming as well as maybe they ever have.
Sunday’s task will offer no break, not that the NFL really ever affords such a thing, when the Steelers travel to Philadelphia to face off against Darren Sproles. Sproles, even at 33, is still one of the most dynamic return men. He has four punt return touchdowns from 2014-2015, and in 2014, he led the league with 13 yards per punt return.
If anything, he’s gotten better over time. Smith knows he won’t be an easy player to stop, joking when Labriola mentioned at least he won’t have to face him out there.
“But the guy who is will be damn good in Darren Sproles. He’s excellent. He’s got a 14.8 yard average right now. Again, he’s been doing it for 12 years and we’re going to have to play well to defend him.”