2016 South Side Questions: Kick Coverage A Cause For Concern?

The regular season is here, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are taking their practices at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, formerly known and still referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility of Heinz Field. While the real work is now upon us, there is plenty left to be done.

And there are plenty of questions left unanswered as well. The offseason is just really the beginning phase of the answer-seeking process, which is lasts all the way through the Super Bowl for teams fortunate enough to reach that far.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they wade through a regular season in which they are, at least supposed to be, among the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Question: Is there a reason to suddenly by concerned about the Steelers’ kick coverage?

On Sunday, the Steelers’ usually strong coverage unit on kickoffs showed some vulnerability, in doing so allowing Bengals kick returner Alex Erickson to record several positive returns. The rookie wide receiver returned kick of Boswell’s eight kickoffs, and on four of those occasions, he was able to provide Cincinnati with starting field position better than they would have received with a touchback.

Obviously, the major story is the fact that the Steelers very nearly allowed Erickson to break one for a touchdown, instead going down as a 72-yard return to Pittsburgh’s 26-yard line when kicker Chris Boswell just ever so slightly got a hand on one of his legs, which had the domino effect of causing the runner’s foot to the inside of the field get caught up on the calf of his opposite leg, tackling himself.

Aside from that, Erickson also returned the first kickoff, off of a muff, out to the 36-yard line, providing good starting field position for what would eventually be a touchdown drive. He also returned two other kicks out to the 29- and 30-yard lines, respectively, with the only ‘negative’ return being the one that he fielded on the goal line and returned to the 22. A holding penalty pushed the Bengals back to the 10 on that drive.

On the season, Erickson’s statistics do show that he was doing well as a returner even before the Steelers game—he also had an 84-yard return, with those two long returns obviously inflating his yards per return number a bit—but the coverage unit certainly should have been able to do a much better job of containing him.

Simply comparing to the coverage that they had last week, with Roosevelt Nix making two tackles to stop the returner inside the 20-yard line, show that the Steelers do have the talent on the unit. But during Sunday’s game, I found myself becoming nervous on each kickoff, and I’m wondering if others felt the same. Is there a cause for concern here going forward—it’s worth noting that the Ravens just recently waived their returner, Devin Hester—or was this an anomaly?

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