So far through the first two days of the legal tampering window, the Pittsburgh Steelers have lost a starter on offense at left guard and a starter on defense at defensive tackle. What people don’t realize, or choose not to acknowledge, is that they have now parted with three starters on special teams.
Before negotiations even began, the Steelers curiously made the decision to release wide receiver Johnny Holton, who ably filled in the Darrius Heyward-Bey niche on special teams last season. The move was not done to create cap space, but more likely was timed to give him the opportunity to catch on with another team as soon as possible after determining that he would not be in their plans for 2020.
The team’s hands were also tied as far as releasing Anthony Chickillo went once they decided that the franchise tag was the only current course of action for retaining Bud Dupree. Chickillo, a rotational backup who saw a four-year low in playing time in 2019, was due $5 million in 2020. They couldn’t afford to pay him that, even though he was a key cog in the special teams machine.
The biggest blow was losing Tyler Matakevich to the Buffalo Bills for a surprisingly large contract that I would imagine nobody outside of the discussions was expecting. Perennially logging 300-plus snaps in that phase and leading the league in special teams tackles since coming into the league, he also has blocked punts and fake punts stopped on his resume.
While the signing of Derek Watt is a significant special teams boost, it’s also likely going to come with the concurrent move of letting Roosevelt Nix go. This may not be an option, if it is the case that his health is a factor.
Any way you slice it, the Steelers have taken some big hits on special teams, and this is following the heels of prior losses of Heyward-Bey and L.J. Fort, Robert Golden (and then Nat Berhe), and others. Special teams is inherently inclined to comparatively substantial turnover, but you want to retain as much continuity as is feasible.
With Devin Bush and Vince Williams entering full-time roles, it’s fair to say their special teams duties will be heavily curtailed or eliminated altogether. It’s time for players like Ulysees Gilbert III, Robert Spillane, Justin Layne, Marcus Allen, Tuzar Skipper, and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi to step up.
After all, can you really complain about the Steelers’ special teams if you constantly rail against any move that they make in an effort to improve that area of the game? I say this several times a year, but special teams is a part of the game that doesn’t matter to people until it does. Remember in 2009 when the situation became so dire that they had to put starters like Brett Keisel, James Harrison, and Ike Taylor back on those units? I don’t want to see T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick and Devin Bush running down any more kicks.