2017 South Side Questions: Caution Using Starters On Special Teams?

The journey toward the Super Bowl is now well under way with the Pittsburgh Steelers back practicing at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, still informally referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility. With the regular season standing in their way on the path to a Lombardi, there will be questions for them to answer along the way.

We have asked and answered a lot of questions during the preseason and through training camp, but much of the answer-seeking ends in the regular season, and teams simply have to make do with what they have available to them. Still, there will always be questions for us.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond as they develop, looking for the answers as we evaluate the makeup of the Steelers on their way back to the Super Bowl, after reaching the AFC Championship game last season for the first time in more than half a decade.

Question: Should the Steelers be more cautious in using starters on offense or defense on special teams?

I am probably one of the biggest advocates out there when it comes to arguing for the investment of resources in the quality of product on special teams. I’ve been known to champion players like Darrius Heyward-Bey, Shamarko Thomas, Curtis Brown, and Antwon Blake for their work in the third phase and argued that they deserved their roster spots because of it.

But I would probably think twice when it comes to using actual starters on special teams, outside of something like the field goal unit. The Steelers have finally taken Antonio Brown off of punt returns, which is something that I felt was worth strong consideration for years.

After T.J. Watt suffered a groin injury while covering a punt on Sunday, I think it’s inevitable to at least think about it.  The Steelers have been using players like Artie Burns and Joe Haden at times in the role of jammers on the punt return unit, and I would hate to see them go down playing in roles they hadn’t even been practicing for in the first place.

They have, for example, reduced the workload of Vince Williams significantly since they entered the starting lineup, though Mike Hilton, despite being the primary slot cornerback, has seen 15 snaps on special teams in each of the first two games.

There is a delicate balance here when it comes to figuring out how to use players on special teams who have big roles to play elsewhere, and I certainly am not going to be the one to argue for the idea that there is some guideline or standard to use in deciding who to use and when.

I just know that when an important player ends up suffering an injury on special teams, these are the kinds of discussion that inevitably arise.

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