This entire season the Steelers’ secondary and offensive line have fallen under the microscope – the secondary has been receiving praise, the offensive line scowls. Arians has received his annual ‘fire him’ cry from Steelers Nation, and even Tomlin has taken heat for player performance and play schemes. But one phase of the game that usually receives some form of scrutiny and has yet to deserve any this season is special teams play. Will that all change with a return threat like ‘Pacman’ Jones?
The Steelers defensive special teams has been pretty stellar so far this season. They have yet to give up a return for a touchdown – punt or kickoff. This seems extra strange given the surprise increase in runbacks for 6 points regardless of rule changes and the Steelers’ yearly struggles of containing a scoring runback over the course of a season. Teams are averaging right around the 25 yard line as a starting position when they return the ball on kickoffs. The longest punt return they’ve given up all season has been 20 yards, and opponents are averaging only 7.3 yards per return. It certainly helps that the Steelers have only punted the ball 23 times in 11 games.
Looking at the other side of the contextual coin, the Steelers have yet to face a Devin Hester’ian type return man. There are five teams in the top 10 of average return yards the Steelers have faced already this season (Cardinals, Chiefs, Patriots, Texans and Bengals – in that order). They will be facing another top 10 team when they head to San Francisco. All of those teams except for the Chiefs have a scoring punt or kickoff – and the Titans then enter into this group. So even though there hasn’t been a huge threat, the teams the Steelers have faced have been able to get big yards and big plays out of their return game. I think it’s worth giving a lot of credit to special teams coach Al Everest. The Steelers have yet to get big gains out of Sanders and Brown on returns, but the team has at least kept themselves from getting burned on a runback.
This Sunday could be an opportunity to show what the special teams is really made of when they face the Bengals. It has yet to be confirmed or denied yet, but the talk out of Cincy right now is that Adam ‘Pacman’ Jones would run back punts and kickoffs as soon as he is 100% healthy. He was around a few weeks ago when these two teams met up for the first time. He played limited snaps at corner but did not do any return work. His slow recovery could keep him from participating in any return work this Sunday, but should the Steelers worry if they see Jones 50 yards downfield awaiting a Jeremy Kapinos punt?
Based on what we’ve seen so far this season from the Steelers’ special teams play, I would have to say ‘no.’ But that doesn’t mean there’s no threat back there should Jones return a punt or kickoff. He’s fast and agile – not a Hester, but he’s still good. I don’t feel that Everest should make any changes to the game plan come Sunday. I think that the team can contain anyone who is back there, which is what they plan for week in and week out. If Jones returns tomorrow, we could see a big return of 40-50 yards, but I don’t really see a TD from him or anyone. The Steelers’ have been consistent in that phase of the game, which is comforting. I expect that to continue.
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