Too. Many. Penalties.
That’s the way you can sum up the year the Pittsburgh Steelers had on special teams in 2018. Well, that, and Chris Boswell forcing you to close your eyes every time he lined up to kick.
No team had more special teams penalties than the Steelers’ 27 of them in 2018. And they happened for a variety of reasons. But a persistent one were illegal blocks. Pittsburgh was flagged four times for blocks above the waist/blindside blocks on the punt return team last season, a frustratingly high amount.
Like this one called on Tyler Matakevich versus Denver. A bad decision to push the Broncos’ player from behind, drawing the flag.
Good news. Danny Smith is trying to eliminate those issues. And he might’ve gotten a little help from the college games. The Steelers are using what I’ve seen some call “airplane blocks, (I’ve also seen it referring to as a “hip by” technique)” the blocker wedging himself in front of the defender, putting his hands up, and essentially just boxing him out. No push (hands are up, standing in front), a way to cut him off without any chance of getting flagged.
I’m sure the idea has been coached for a long time but it became football-viral when this Alabama player blocked two players with this technique to spring a long return last season.
This is how you block without taking cheap shots pic.twitter.com/k1O60hIkep
— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) December 1, 2018
And now I’m seeing the Steelers use this technique three times on their punt return team. The first came in Week One against Tampa. I have a screenshot and a clip of it below. Robert Spillane working across the field, getting in front of the defender with the airplane/hip by technique to create a wall and allow Diontae Spencer the corner for a long, 30 yard return.
Briefly, you can see Tevin Jones do the same against the Kansas City Chiefs last week. No push from behind. Just box out your man. Force him to spin around (taking his eyes off the ball) and find the returner.
And here are the best examples of it. Spencer’s 38 yard return Saturday. Ulysees Gilbert III and Johnny Holton employ the technique. Really well done and Spencer has a huge lane up the left side.
This is really smart. Blocking without blocking. It eliminates so many issues.
1. No blocks in the back. Blockers are cutting off their man, not going from behind, and put their hands up.
2. No holding. Again, hands are up. Holding was another issue in the return game last year
3. This may be minor and more “big picture” but it makes the game safer too. No blindside hits that can cause serious injury.
It’s just one element of special teams and doesn’t correct all the issues, of which there are many (can we please improve the kick return game to even average? Please?) but I love the problem-solving from Danny Smith here. And great execution by the players. Smart football is winning football.