One of our goals at this website is to try to provide valuable coverage of the Pittsburgh Steelers in areas of the game that are underemphasized by other venues. To that end, we started doing this weekly special teams report last season. With the regular season underway, it has returned.
The Steelers’ ‘starting’ kickoff grouping is notable for including Xavier Grimble, who had been benched last season and made a healthy scratch. After he got a helmet again, he strived to make himself more valuable on special teams. Stevan Ridley and himself were the two ‘deep’ players.
This is no surprise, but Darrius Heyward-Bey was a starting gunner. Opposite him was Cameron Sutton to start the game. He was down the field in front of the returner and would have forced a fair catch had Jordan Berry’s punt not gone out of bounds.
This is very important to note: Jordan Dangerfield took over Robert Golden’s role as the ‘upback’ personal protector on the punting unit. This was assumed to be Nat Berhe’s role. Also worth noting, Terrell Edmunds played the left ‘tackle’ role that T.J. Watt held for most of his rookie season.
One again, Danny Smith has the team’s starting cornerbacks playing jammer. I was against this last year and am still against it, especially since, I’m guessing, they don’t even practice it much. Joe Haden let his man beat him and actually allowed the gunner to bump into Ryan Switzer on a touchback.
This is not something that they did last year, but the front coverage team was the same as the return team, minus the long snapper: Dangerfield, Edmunds, Tyler Matakevich, L.J. Fort, Anthony Chickillo, and Roosevelt Nix. Sutton and Heyward-Bey played behind.
Switzer had a long return negated by a hold called against Heyward-Bey, which was slight, and Nix, which was…not.
Last season, Grimble spent most of the season as one of the two edge protectors on the field goal kicking unit, but that was because Stephon Tuitt was injured. With Tuitt healthy, he was back in that role, opposite Jesse James.
Two players who had good blocks on a short Switzer punt return in the middle of the second quarter were Haden, as the left jammer, and Edmunds, who was very aggressive in pursuit.
I wrote almost every week last year about Nix nearly blocking a punt. He very nearly blocked the Browns’ next punt with three minutes to go in the second quarter, beating the right wing around the edge.
On the first returnable kick of the season to start the second half, the Steelers showed great lane discipline until late, allowing the returner a lane for an ice return. But Mike Hilton was held as he made for the hole left open by the vacated lane, negating the return anyway.
The next time Chris Boswell kicked off, he deliberately left it short, inside the five. The Browns’ blockers were not set up properly for the angled kick, which created confusion and allowed four Steelers players to get inside the lanes. Matakevich was just the one that the returner ran into, but three others could have just as easily made the tackle, a the 16.
On Switzer’s 20-yard punt return in the middle of the third, Sutton rotated over late to help jam the right gunner with Haden, which proved to be the key block.
Boswell’s next kickoff left the Browns at just the 11-yard line thanks to the coverage. There was miscommunication that saw two blockers leave Matakevich free, assuming the returner would make it to the left perimeter. He did not. That was because he beat his blocker, tight end Seth DeValve, catching him on a backstep.
James Washington did not look good at all replacing Haden as the left jammer. On one rep, he failed to get his hips turned like a cornerback getting burned off the line of scrimmage. Later, he nearly let the ball bounce into him. Switzer and Matakevich had a talk with him after that. He was blown by in overtime as well.. On the same rep as the first example, Burns did a great job, knocking the gunner out of bounds, with help from Heyward-Bey.
Matthew Thomas was actually used as a gunner on one punt late in the fourth quarter. He missed the tackle and helped allow a 15-yard return, but he showed that he has the speed to do it. He induced a fair catch on a shorter punt the second time around. The third time? Well, clearly nobody has shown him how to attack vice jammers, because he was eaten up nearly immediately. Fortunately, this was the play on which the returner made a fair catch call way too early.
On the missed field goal, the snap was slightly high, buy the hold was good, and there was no disruption in Boswell’s kicking cadence. He just missed.
Toward the end of the game, Sutton replaced Burns as a jammer.
Finally, there was the field goal block that preserved the tie. Watt and Davis both got excellent push to drive their man back, two players attacking one blocker. Watt was able to shed inside and get a hand up, timed well enough to get his hand on the ball.