Training Camp Preview and Roster Projections: Special Teams

Because sooner or later, we’ll all be trying to predict the final 53…

Likely Roster Spots: 3

Projected Starters: K Jeff Reed, P Daniel Sepulveda, LS Greg Warren

Key Training Camp Battles: Greg Warren vs. Matt Stewart for LS job. Stefan Logan vs. Antonio Brown vs. Emmanuel Sanders vs. Antwaan Randle El vs. Joe Burnett vs. Mewelde Moore for punt-return job. Logan vs. Brown vs. Sanders vs. Burnett vs. Crezdon Butler vs. Arnaz Battle for kick-return duties.

Projected for 53-Man Roster: (3) Reed, Sepulveda, Warren

Analysis: The No. 1 reason the Steelers did not make the playoffs in 2009 was their kickoff-coverage unit, arguably the worst in the modern NFL era.

Special-teams coach Bob Legursky was rightly fired and replaced with Al Everest, who inherits a kick coverage unit that last season set an NFL record by yielding a kickoff return for a TD in 4 of 5 games, and was rated by Football Outsiders as the worst unit ever since it began compiling these ratings in 1993.

The free-agent signees of veterans Will Allen and Arnaz Battle should boost the Steelers’ coverage units, as should the addition of second-round pick Jason Worilds. But regardless of who the Steelers played or what they tried, their kickoff coverage was atrocious in 2009, and that has been the Steelers’ Achilles heel for the better part of 20 years.

A simple solution would be to sign a kickoff specialist, and I have been clamoring for this since the end of the Gary Anderson era, and throughout the tenures of former Steeler kicker Norm Johnson and current kicker Jeff Reed, who last season had the worst kickoff distance average and fewest touchbacks (3 out of 81) of any kicker in the NFL. A kickoff specialist who puts 40% of his kicks into the end zone would have easily booted the Steelers into the playoffs last season.

However, the Steelers’ front office and coaching staff absurdly contend they cannot afford a roster spot for just a kickoff specialist, failing to recognize their stupidity and hypocrisy of that philosophy after the team kept Anthony Madison on the roster for several years just to serve as a gunner on the punt units and last year kept Stefan Logan strictly as a return specialist.

Reed was given the franchise tag this offseason, because the Steelers and his agent are not close to an agreement on a long-term contract. This was a wise move, since Reed is one of the most dependable and clutch field-goal kickers in the NFL despite kicking in horrid conditions in Heinz Field. Reed connected on 27 of 31 field-goal attempts in each of the last two seasons.

Missing two key kicks in a loss at Chicago last year was an anomaly for Reed, who seemingly never gets nervous. I guess it is tough to be nervous when you are perpetually hungover and seemingly devoid of common sense as evident by “Skippy’s” drunken, late-night brawl with a towel dispenser in a convenient store last year.

Daniel Sepulveda is not as good a punter as Steelers fans hoped when he was drafted in the fourth-round of the 2007 NFL Draft. However, he is very serviceable option, evident by the Steelers’ season-long punting woes when Sepulveda missed the 2008 season with a torn ACL. In his second campaign back from the injury, Sepulveda should improve upon his mediocre 2009 average of 42.7 yards per punt, which ranked 18th in the NFL.

Long snapper Greg Warren is solid, but the veteran has been placed on injured reserve each of the last two seasons, both of which were prematurely ended due to knee injuries. The Steelers signed another veteran in Matt Stewart to compete with Warren in fall camp, and Stewart – who has seen action at linebacker in the NFL – is the far better of the athlete of the two.

Stefan Logan was a good kick and punt returner last season, probably the Steelers best combo return man since at least Dwight Stone in the 90s and maybe even Louis Lipps from the 80s. Logan, though, was not the game-changing weapon the Steelers and their fans had hoped for after his brilliant 2009 preseason.

Logan, a former Canadian Football League standout, returned no kicks or punts for TDs last season and will be hard-pressed to make the roster in 2010 after the Steelers expended two draft picks on receivers who can also return kicks. Neither the Steelers’ coaches or front office like using a roster spot on someone like Logan, who just returns kicks.

Unless Emmanuel Sanders beats out Antwaan Randle El for the No. 3 WR spot, which seems unlikely, there will likely be only one game-day roster spot for Antonio Brown or Sanders, and it will likely go to the better return specialist. That gives an advantage to Brown, who has far more experience in this area than Sanders.

The Steelers usually dress four WRs on gameday, but will likely dress five this fall due to Battle’s ability to play on all special-teams units. Still, that means one player will not dress and Sanders may be the odd man out despite being selected in the third round.

Randle El appears to be a fallback option for punt returns, as he has clearly lost skill in this area with age. Dependable Mewelde Moore will likely serve as a fair-catch specialist. Joe Burnett is another viable option, assuming he can protect the ball, which he did not do on returns in the 2009 preseason.

Pittsburgh’s options on kick returns are not as deep or impressive, and this is where the Steelers would miss Logan most if he does not make the final 53-man roster. However, this is a Steeler team that won the Super Bowl two years ago with fullbacks Carey Davis and Gary Russell serving as the least threatening kickoff-return duo in the league. Thus, the coaching staff likely is not overly concerned with who handles kickoff-return duties.

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