While the kicker position has received a lot of attention this offseason for a specialist role, given Chris Boswell’s significant struggles of last season, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ other specialist position is not entirely secure, either. Punter Jordan Berry did not have his best season in 2018 as the team looks for him to continue to develop.
Entering his fifth season now, most of his ‘developing’ would already be done, so if the past season is really the best that he could offer at this point in his career, don’t be surprised if the Steelers look another way, if they have a viable alternative available to them.
Berry knows this as well as anybody. Right now, the only punter scheduled to head into training camp with them is rookie Ian Berryman, but even early last season the team brought in a couple of punters for a tryout, maybe to send a message as much as anything.
Berry punted seven times in the season opener for a 39.3-yard average and a 37.1-yard net, and only three of those seven punts got inside the Cleveland Browns’ 20-yard line. A week later, thanks to a couple of good returns, he posted a net average of just 31.6 yards. Outside of the Los Angeles Chargers game, his net average stabilized after that for the most part, but it was still a season that ranked toward the bottom of the league in comparison to the rest of the kickers around the league. So he knows how important a strong start is.
“I have to try to make sure I have a better start than I did last year”, he told Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I feel like everything is going well. I’m hitting the ball well and getting some power in the leg. I’m trying to get as many reps as I can”.
As Alex Kozora has previously tried to explain, some of Berry’s numbers have more to do with a philosophical position that the Steelers and special teams coordinator Danny Smith take, where they prioritize preventing a return over getting great distance.
But Berry and the coverage unit didn’t really succeed in that department. The 227 yards in returns that the punt coverage unit allowed ranked as the 16th-most among punters last year, in spite of the fact that they only allowed one punt per game to be returned. If you’re not preventing big returns and also not getting great distance, that is a problem, and results finishing with the 27th-best net average in the league.
“I can get amped up at times and really try to smash the ball”, he admitted. “More often than not, that’s not a good thing. You want to try to hit the ball at 85 percent because that’s where you’re going to get your best ball. Sometimes I try to smash a big one, and that’s where it doesn’t pan out”.