The Steelers have a few high-quality players sprinkled among their special teams units. Place kicker Shaun Suisham has been among the most accurate kickers in the NFL since coming to the team in the middle of the 2010 season. Antonio Brown continues to be among the best punt returners in the game. And second-year defensive back Robert Golden has developed into a valuable member of the specialty units.
The problem for the Steelers is the dozen or so others who played on special teams weren't nearly as distinguished in their roles. That meant the Steelers were what they have been for the past several years on special teams -- average to below average.
The Steelers lack depth across the board at many positions on their roster and that showed up on special teams last season. It is one reason special teams coach Danny Smith will be looking hard at the 2014 rookie class for impactful players to use on his special teams.
First, let's highlight the positives.
When Suisham was signed by the Steelers he had been unemployed, waiting for his next opportunity after playing for three teams in the first five years of his NFL career. Three years after getting that call, Suisham has settled in to become a dependable place kicker for the Steelers.
Last season he was 30 for 32 on field goal attempts for a 93.8 percentage, which was third in the NFL. He has made 87 percent of his field goal attempts in a Steelers uniform. Suisham does not have a big leg, so he is not a threat to boot long field goals or force many touchbacks, but the Steelers have found in Suisham a reliable, if not spectacular, kicker. He is entering the final year of his contract that will pay him $1.4 million next season.
The Steelers were fourth in the league in punt return average with 12.8 yards per return. Brown had a 67-yard touchdown return against the Bengals late in the season that gave the Steelers a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. It was a game-changing play. Unfortunately, for the Steelers it was one of only a handful of game-changing plays turned in by the special teams.
Brown can be even more dangerous on special teams if he did not fair-catch so many punts. He had 23 fair catches last season, many of them when he had plenty of real estate to give the offense better field position.
In terms of coverage, Golden was among the best in the NFL. He was rated as the second-best special teams player in the league by Pro Football Focus. Golden had 11 tackles on special teams.
Now, the negatives.
The Steelers struggled to find consistency with their punter. They cut ties with their incumbent, Drew Butler, when they released him at the end of training camp. They searched the waiver wire for his replacement and signed former Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko, who performed so poorly that he had to be replaced in the middle of the season. Mesko's replacement, Mat McBriar, was better but only marginally. As a result, the Steelers were 31st in the NFL in punt average and net average.
The Steelers signed Brad Wing to a reserve/future contract after the season and he'll compete throughout the spring and summer for a roster spot.
The Steelers also remained average in other areas on special teams. They were 15th in kickoff returns, averaging 22.4 yards per return. They used Emmanuel Sanders as a kickoff return specialist occasionally and he provided some big plays. He averaged 26.8 yards per return on 10 returns including a 37-yard return to set up a game-winning field goal against Baltimore.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin limited Sanders' exposure on kickoff returns for fear of injuring his starting receiver. Most of the time the kickoff return duties were handled by reserve running back Felix Jones, who averaged a pedestrian 22.2 yards per return. One of the goals for Smith this summer should be finding a kickoff return specialist capable of providing more game-breaking ability.
The Steelers were 12th in the league in kickoff return yardage against, allowing 22.4 yards per return, but they were susceptible to some big plays. Jacoby Jones of Baltimore returned a kickoff 73 yards in a Thanksgiving night game against the Steelers that set up a field goal. The Steelers eventually lost, 22-20. As long as Suisham is the kicker the Steelers are going to have to find a way to cover kickoffs well because he had just 24 touchbacks last season.
The punt coverage unit was similarly average, finishing 16th in punt-returns-against.
Veteran Greg Warren, 32, the long snapper since 2005, has been re-signed to a one-year contract.
POSITION AT A GLANCE I COACH: DANNY SMITH
Strengths: The place-kicking of Shaun Suisham, the punt-return ability of Antonio Brown and the solid play on the coverage units by Robert Golden.
Weaknesses: Punter Mat McBriar and Zoltan Mesko combined to make the Steelers 31st in the league in punt average and net average. While Suisham is accurate he does not have a strong leg as evidenced by the Steelers forcing an NFL-low 24 touchbacks on kickoffs last season.
Needs: A punter who can flip the field and pin opposing teams deep in their own territory. A few more players like Golden who can excel in kick and punt coverage.
Overview: The Steelers improved slightly in a few areas, but they could use some impactful players who excel on special teams. The inability to find a long-term punter has hurt the team as well in recent years.
THE PAST DECADE
A look at the Steelers' success and failure at the position since 2004
84.4 — Percent of field goals made by Steelers kickers since the 2004 season. It's a fact related to the unique stability they have had at the position in the past decade with Jeff Reed and Shaun Suisham.
2 — Times the Steelers have finished among the top 10 teams in punt average in the past 10 seasons. They were ninth in the league in 2010 and eighth in 2004. They were not among the top half of the teams in the league punting in any of the other eight years, finishing 22nd or worse five times in that span.
The Steelers have used one draft pick in the past 10 years on a kicker or punter. In 2007, they took punter Daniel Sepulveda out of Baylor with a fourth-round pick, the 112th choice overall. Sepulveda had knee problems and retired in 2011.
The majority of the kickers, punters and long snappers the Steelers have employed in recent years were free agents. Suisham was signed in the middle of the 2010 season after Jeff Reed, a free agent signing in 2002, was cut. Before Sepulveda, Chris Gardocki and Mitch Berger punted for the team. After Sepulveda, Jeremy Kapinos and Drew Butler held down the job. Greg Warren has been the long snapper since 2005. Mike Schneck was the long snapper in 2004.