Over the past 20 years, the Steelers have had the best defense in the NFL and have been the most consistently successful squad over that span, making their eighth trip to the AFC Championship game in the past 17 years this Sunday against the visiting New York Jets.
Unfortunately, the past 20 years for Steelers fans have also been marred by some of the worst kickoff and punt coverage units in the NFL, which have kept the Steelers from winning more than their league-high six Super Bowls (see 2001) and have also been a primary culprit when Pittsburgh just missed making the playoffs (see 2006 and 2009) despite having very talented squads.
While Pittsburgh’s special-teams coverage units have been considerably better than 2009 when the Steelers set a modern-era NFL record in yielding five kickoff returns for touchdowns, those units have become shakier as this season has progressed.
The Steelers were clearly the superior team in a 22-17 home loss to the Jets in week 15, outgaining the Jets by 101 yards. However, they lost largely due to a 97-yard, game-opening kickoff TD return to Brad Smith.
In last week’s 31-24 win over the Ravens in the divisional round, the Steelers more than doubled the Ravens in total yards (263-126) and won the turnover battle (3-2). Still, the Steelers almost lost due to special teams breakdowns and may well have lost if not for a great acting job by Will Allen on a slight hold that wiped off a 55-yard punt return for a TD by Lardarius Webb that would have put the Ravens ahead 28-24 with just over six minutes remaining.
Steelers’ special teams were awful throughout that game. Webb returned the opening kickoff for 52 yards; Pittsburgh had penalties on two of its first four kick or punt returns, putting the offense in poor field position; and the Steelers also had two penalties on punt coverage, one of which negated Keenan Lewis downing a Jason Kapinos punt at the Baltimore 1.
While I am concerned about the Steelers’ offensive line protecting Ben Roethlisberger long enough for Pittsburgh’s receivers to get separation from New York’s awesome cornerback tandem of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, I feel confident about how the Steelers match up with the Jets, primarily due to the presence of Roethlisberger.
However, I have seen the Steelers lose too many key games they should have won due to special teams over the years. So how do they fix these constant problems? Well, since the front office is opposed to keeping a kickoff specialist on the roster despite having a gunner who can’t play cornerback in Anthony Madison on the roster, one remedy is to get your best athletes on kick coverage.
One of those players this year has been rookie Jason Worilds. While Pittsburgh had more pressing needs than deep depth at linebacker in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Worilds was a key addition to improved kick coverage early in the year, thanks largely due to his 4.5-second speed in the 40-yard dash.
But Worilds has been inactive on the Steelers’ 45-player game-day roster each of the last three games, so that Pittsburgh could dress six receivers, including Antwaan Randle El.
Now, I love Randle El and bringing him back was a wise move for depth and leadership. But he is now the Steelers’ No. 5 wide receiver, with No. 6 wideout Aranz Battle a key contributor on nearly every special-teams unit.
In contrast, Randle El is primarily used for a gadget play or two each game, occasionally sees spot duty at receiver, and is the safety valve punt returner when Pittsburgh is near its own goal line despite having questionable hands on punt returns and Mewelde Moore better suited for those duties.
I understand the Steelers wanting Randle El’s veteran, playoff experience on the dress roster for last week’s game against the Ravens. After all, No, 1 receiver Mike Wallace was in his first playoff game, and No. 3 and No. 4 receivers, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, are rookies.
Wallace, however, has not come across as nervous in two years with the Steelers, and tallied 1,257 receiving yards and 10 TDs this season. Sanders, meanwhile, led all Steelers wideouts with four receptions against the Ravens, while Brown had three catches for a team-high 75 yards, including a 58-yard ear catch that set up the game-wining TD.
In other words, these rookies did not look nervous at all, showing that the Steelers would be best served dressing Worilds for kick coverage than Randle El. Ideally, the Steelers could inactivate Keenan Lewis instead, since he is primarily noticed just for making stupid penalties on special teams
Plus, Lewis must still be pretty bad at corner if defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau elected to play the physically limited Anthony Madison all game against the Ravens at nickel back after starting corner Bryant McFadden left after the first series of the game with an injury.
However, assuming the Steelers will dress McFadden again this Sunday (and they will), Lewis has to dress in case McFadden departs early again with an injury, which is now becoming a common occurrence.
Of course, if the Steelers dress defensive linemen Aaron Smith, they cannot then deactivate Nick Eason for the same reason they cannot deactivate Lewis (one play away from being short-handed at the position, since Pittsburgh only dressed five defensive linemen last week with Smith still sidelined due to injury). In that case, both Worilds and Randle El would most likely not be active, and the Steelers would again not have their best athletes on kick coverage.
This is just one of the many reasons why the NFL allowing teams to keep 53 players on its active roster with full pay but only dress 45 on game days is an insanely dumb rule.