Bringing back a series I had a lot of fun exploring the last several offseasons. Every player wants to improve, to elevate his game in all areas from one season to the next. Understanding that, we’re going to isolate just one area, one faction of a player’s game. The biggest area for improvement.
Jordan Berry: No More JV Punts
I’ve defended Berry to a reasonable extent. What makes him effective and what the team values in a punter. His hangtime and directional punting are his best assets and the team prefers that over a punter risking out-kicking his coverage, allowing for returns and the chance of giving up a big one.
But in those moments where his directional placement is off, because he is so focused on pinning the ball to the sideline, he’ll get into trouble with some absolute shanks. The junior varsity punts Mike Tomlin rightfully chastises. It did happen too often last season, especially early in the year. Three of these four clips you’ll see below come from the first six weeks of 2018.
It started with an objectively bad performance against the Cleveland Browns in Week One. Weather wasn’t great, windy day, but that isn’t an excuse that’s going to fly. Just a 31 yard boot.
Ditto the following week versus Kansas City. Probably some extra pressure to not allow a return, given the struggles the coverage unit had early, and it causes this one to land out of bounds, giving the Chiefs the ball with excellent field position.
Happened again versus the Bengals in mid-October. You’re looking to prevent a return, force a fair catch, but you gotta keep the ball in play (obviously). 36 yard punt/net, far below even Danny Smith’s too-low expectation of 40 yard net per punt. This isn’t good enough.
And finally, mid-season against the Carolina Panthers. It’s the 4th quarter, the game is over, so luckily it didn’t hurt the team and Berry was probably “cold,” his first punt of the day. But again, all excuses that aren’t good enough. His second shortest punt of the season, 28 yards that puts Carolina at their own 42. Great field position.
You’ll notice the theme here. It matches with the charting we’ve done. Most of Berry’s punts are asked to go left side between the numbers and the sideline (closer to the sideline, the better). When you’re asked to do that on almost all your punts, you run the risk of mis-hitting it on your foot and shanking it or simply pushing the ball too far left and having it land out of bounds. It’s one of the consequences of the Steelers’ philosophy. If you’re asking the punter to hit it down the fairway this time, missing by a couple yards right or left won’t kill you. Here, it does.
Of course, if you change course and ask for more middle and booming punts, you increase the number of returns allowed (Pittsburgh allowed only 17 PRs last year, tied third fewest) and the chance for bigger plays given up.
Berry will have to do a better job of walking that line on his directional tries in 2019 though the fact he did better towards the end of the year is an encouraging sign.