Special teams had been a surprising strength for the Pittsburgh Steelers, by and large, over the course of the first seven weeks of the season. While the punt game was lacking, which resulted in them making a change and dumping Dustin Colquitt to bring Jordan Berry back, the unit overall was a positive contributor, with even the kick return game getting a boost thanks to Ray-Ray McCloud.
Unfortunately, the coverage units decided to fall asleep on Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, as they allowed multiple very long returns in the game, even if they ultimately did not inflict too much damage. On one long punt return and one long kick return, the Cowboys netted three combined points.
In the first half, following a booming punt by Berry, Dallas incorporated some trickery reminiscent of the Music City Miracle, throwing the ball across the field to the open side. It nearly went the distance if not for a floundering Jordan Dangerfield hardly making the stop, after he was blocked in the back.
The defense was able to ultimately stand and hold them to a field goal, but it wouldn’t be the only time in the game that they would have to put in tough work after a big return, as the Cowboys also got a long kick return at the top of the fourth quarter.
Quickly getting into field goal range, Garrett Gilbert and company were threatening by the time that he fired into the end zone and, on a loose ball, ultimately found Minkah Fitzpatrick, which was his second takeaway of the game, having previously recovered a fumble. That came inside the red zone and preserved a four-point deficit with about 10 minutes to play.
Those were two huge swings by the defense that really helped the Steelers on the day in a way that I think will go underappreciated. Two returns put an ad hoc Cowboys offense within striking distance multiple times, and they failed to make the most out of those chances, to say the least.
Even though they were fortunate to have largely overcome these plays, it’s clear that something was amiss. Of course, you are occasionally going to be fooled by a gadget play—a play on which former Steelers wide receiver C.J. Goodwin faked a hamstring injury retreating down the field so that the coverage team would ignore him—but Rico Dowdle’s 64-yard kick return didn’t have that benefit, as it appeared that two or three Steelers got in each other’s lanes and allowed a diagonal gap.
Regardless of the outcome, these things have to be cleaned up. Part of the issue is likely the influx of new personnel, as it included Antoine Brooks seeing his first snaps ever, and Jayrone Elliott having recently been promoted from the practice squad. Henry Mondeaux is also recently new to the roster, so that’s a lot of turnover from the start of the season within one special teams unit.