We’ve repeatedly discussed the Pittsburgh Steelers being better-equipped to handle the pitfalls of the COVID pandemic than most teams. Their stability, starting at the top with GM and head coach, and the research that’s shown they are among the league leaders in returning starters on offense and especially defense.
But that overlooks a crucial third phase of the game no one but me likes talking about. Special teams. And the Steelers are missing some key players from that end of things.
Couple days ago, I tweeted out how many special teams snaps the team is losing from 2019 to 2020. In total, they’re losing close to 1400 total snaps and half of their top eight special teamers – in snaps – are no longer on the team.
Steelers have an advantage with all the returning players on offense and defense but they're losing a lot of special teams snaps. 1383 in total, including four of their top eight. #Steelers
Matakevich – 337 (1st)
Holton – 280 (3rd)
Chickillo – 216 (5th)
Kelly – 174 (8th)
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) July 8, 2020
Tyler Matakevich, Johnny Holton (though a terrible receiver, he was a quality special teamer), Anthony Chickillo, and Kam Kelly are the top names missing from this 2020 roster. And those snaps add up.
To be fair on a couple points, special teamers often have higher turnover than starters on offense and defense. They don’t tend to stick around as long, players closer to the bottom of the roster where you see more churn. And if there’s an area you’d have to choose to replace, offense/defense/special teams, it’s going to be special teams.
Still, you can’t overlook it. Special teams isn’t just plug ‘n play. Especially with how the Steelers will look to replace most of those guys, sans Derek Watt for Roosevelt Nix (who hardly played on STs last year because of injury). Pittsburgh will be counting on their rookie class to fill in the gaps. Guys like Chase Claypool, Alex Highsmith, Antoine Brooks Jr. On paper, all three could succeed there but they’re young, new faces missing an entire offseason and potentially an entire preseason.
The only thing left for them is training camp. If you’ve ever attended a practice, you know while there’s time dedicated to special teams, it’s hard to replicate it. You can work on individual technique but it’s hard to simulate full team sessions. Offense and defense can run 11 on 11 at full speed. Special teams doesn’t get that luxury, working at half-speed with no contact and fewer reps. It’s even harder to do at Heinz Field, where space is much more limited than Latrobe.
Special teams is about technique and trust. Doing the little things and doing them right everytime – there’s no margin for error in a phase with only a handful of kicks and punts per game. We’ve seen penalties hamstring this unit in the past, a stagnant kick return game that’s created long fields, and other pull-your-hair out moments that can serve as the difference between a win or loss.
Now there’s going to be some serious turnover with fresh faces who’ll be counted on right away. Eventually, they’ll figure it out, settle in, and replace the names who’ve left, but there could be some rough waters to begin the season.