State of the Steelers: Special Teams

Our ongoing season on the present state of the Steelers roster continues today with the special teams.

The long-overused joke of the Steelers special teams not being so “special” certainly applied in 2009 and will most likely be true again in 2010.

Things haven’t changed too much since 2009. With Piotr Czech‘s release five days ago, Jeff Reed is still the only kicker on the roster and Dan Sepulveda the only punter. The biggest difference from last season is that special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky is no longer with the team. He was replaced by Al Everest, who has bounced around the NFL with a few different teams in the past.

Despite the coaching change, I see few reasons why the special teams won’t suck again in 2010. With the exception of 2008 and 2005, I can’t remember a year where the Steelers haven’t been abysmal in covering both kickoffs and punts. It probably isn’t a coincidence that the team won Super Bowls both years they were at least semi-competent on special teams. Football Outsiders has the 2009 Steelers kickoff rating at a mind-blowing -34.7. The next lowest team was Detroit with a -9.0 rating. In fact, the 2009 Steelers easily had the lowest kickoff rating since FO started tracking the data in 1993. Only the 2001 Buffalo Bills ever finished with a comprable score (-31).

( If you are curious, he’s a brief explanation of how the kickoff rating is calculated: Yards of field position from the other four elements of special teams are translated into points using a method that gives each yard line a point value based on the average next score an NFL offense is worth from that point on the field. Kickoffs and punts are based on net yardage. …. These numbers are then adjusted for weather and altitude based on stadium type (cold, warm, dome, Denver) and week )

For a team as talented as the Steelers, that is unacceptable. The main reason they are so bad is Reed’s lack of leg strength on kickoffs, who recorded only three touchbacks in 81 kickoffs last season. Fans have long been crying for a kickoff specialist, but I’m not so sure it is that simple of a fix. Using (or wasting) a roster spot on a guy just to kick the ball off might not be the wisest thing. Injuries always do a number to NFL teams throughout the season and a kickoff specialist is probably a luxury that most teams can’t afford. Still, something needs to be done with the kickoffs. The easiest solution may be trying Sepulveda on kickoffs. He’s got a strong leg and it would save the team a roster spot. There’s probably a good reason why this hasn’t been done already, though I can’t imagine him being worse at it than Reed.

Return specialist Stefan Logan is another interesting aspect to the Steelers special teams in 2010. He was lights out during preseason last year, seemingly breaking off a long return on every punt or kick. But he didn’t score once in 2009 and was mediocre at best throughout much of the year. Since Logan only played a few snaps on offense and isn’t a quality gunner in kick coverage, he could be on the outside looking in come the final round of cuts this fall.

Reed will probably continue to be a reliable kicker, a rarity at Heinz Field….and Sepulveda will once again be at least a league average punter. But none of that really matters if the Steelers keep surrendering 10 free yards on every kickoff, missing tackles in coverage, and letting Joshua Cribbs singlehandedly win games in special teams. It’s not unreasonable to believe that the Steelers would have made the playoffs last year if they were even an average team in special teams. They need to be better in 2010 or else it might be back to back years with no playoff games.