The special teams fan club is small but mighty, and growing. I have been making a concerted effort to invest more of my time in evaluating the Pittsburgh Steelers’ performance on special teams this season in an attempt to shed light on its importance to the overall game, and that has included the adoption of a weekly special teams report, which you’re reading now.
This probably isn’t something that really has to be actively noted, but it’s been pretty clear that opposing teams have been focusing on kicking the ball in Terrell Watson’s direction, rather than JuJu Smith-Schuster, on kickoffs, the same thing they did with Fitzgerald Toussaint and Sammie Coates last year, since the Steelers adopted the split set for their returners.
J.J. Wilcox opened the game as the team’s starting gunner opposite Darrius Heyward-Bey. As I noted early today, it seems Mike Hilton has been taken off the unit altogether to limit his responsibilities. Also notable with Sean Davis replacing Xavier Grimble as the right wing, and T.J. Watt taking Arthur Moats’ spot as the left end.
Tyreek Hill was by far the most aggressive returner the Steelers faced so far this season, refusing to take fair catches. That paid off by the end of the game when he was able to get off a big return despite the fact that the gunners regularly got down the field, seemingly often assuming they would have induced a fair catch successfully.
But Robert Golden got him the first time around after just a two-yard gain.
I don’t really have anything to add about the gaffe on the free kick, since the coaches film was never made available for it. Either way, it was just stupid.
The Steelers’ first kickoff came from just the 20-yard line because of the penalty on Le’Veon Bell for his celebration. Chris Boswell’s ball only reached the 16-yard line and was returned to the 33, with Vince Williams making the tackle.
Dustin Colquitt’s first punt was a short one, and only traveled 39 yards because it took a friendly bounce, ending up on the Steelers’ 33. His next punt was much better, a 43-yarder pinned down at the one-yard line. I still think the Chief player’s foot was on the white when he downed the ball and that it should have been a touchback.
Roosevelt Nix got his first ‘mark’ on a kickoff this season, bowling over a big tight end on a touchback.
After a 52-yard punt with a five-yard return was negated by an illegal formation penalty for Colquitt, he followed it up with a 54-yard punt that was fair caught, the Steelers losing a net of two yards on the rekick.
The Steelers happily accepted a delay of game penalty from their own 41 on a fourth-and-one play in the hopes of trying to draw the defense, but Jordan Berry’s subsequent punt only traveld 39 yards to the Chiefs’ 25. He has really failed to maximize such long-distance opportunities throughout his career.
In contrast, Colquitt punted from his own 35 to the Steelers’ 11 for 54 yards. Antonio Brown muffed the punt and had to recover it on his own, which he did.
Pittsburgh took another delay of game penalty on a punt on fourth and two this time, from the Chiefs’ 35. This time, they had Nix and Davis flank from their wing positions to the slot, as though they were going to attempt to throw a pass. Golden also vacated his upback spot into a receiving position. Kansas City didn’t bite.
Berry’s punt ended up going into the end zone for a touchback, by Heyward-Bey was able to draw a holding call that pushed them back to the 10. Brian Allen was down there, but he couldn’t locate the ball in time, taking a quick hop when it landed. He had a downed punt in a similar situation earlier this year.
On the next punt, Allen made the mistake of running past Hill, as I said earlier, likely assuming he would have called for a fair catch. Heyward-Bey was also down there, but got blocked. The coverage was there to swarm, however, allowing just a two-yard return to the 18. Tyler Matakevich and L.J. Fort made the tackle.
A later Boswell kickoff only reached the four-yard line—by design or not, I don’t know—allowing a 29-yard return. It seemed as though Fort ended up driving into Matakevich’s lane, preventing him from having a clean shot at an initial tackle near the 20. Hilton ended up with the tackle at the 33.
The Chiefs later short-kicked on a kickoff in a potential onside situation, Smith-Schuster the lone deep player, fielding it at the 13 and taking it to the 24.
Finally, Berry punting from his own 26 got off a long 62-yarder, but he outkicked his coverage, despite solid hangtime. Hill even had to field the ball over his shoulder running toward his own end zone, but poor angles and opportune blocking enabled a 32-yard return for a net 30-yard punt to set up a potential game-winning drive. Matakevich and Nix rocked him out of bounds, but that wouldn’t have mattered if they ended up scoring.