Special teams is the middle child of the football world. No, that’s not right. It’s the red-headed step-child. No one shows special teams any respect, and yet when a game is on the line, it is often the kicker who is relied upon to come up with the game-winning field goal. It is often the punter who is put in a position to pin the opponent deep in their own territory, shifting the field position battle.
The good news is most of the story with special teams can be told with raw numbers. This is one time when the stats can tell the bulk of the story.
The Steelers were in the middle of the pack with 4.9 punt attempts per game. The downside is that they were 26th in the NFL with a pitiable 38.1 net yards per successful punt. That’s not great.
So, while they weren’t punting as often as Houston or Super Bowl Champion Baltimore, they were punting more often than Miami and Carolina.
And the only teams that had worse yardage per punt were Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Buffalo, Detroit, and Carolina. Notice anything about that list of teams? The best record among them was 7-9.
The Steelers only allowed one punt return for a touchdown in 2012, but that is hardly noteworthy as the most any team allowed in the 2012 was 2. On the other hand, the Steelers had pretty good punt coverage, allowing 306 return yards while downing 27 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
When returning punts, the Steelers had an average of 7.3 yards (28th in the NFL). They had no touchdowns and four fumbles on punt returns. Not good enough.
Overall, the numbers here are not horrible, but are not terrific, either. The punt return game has to get better, but I have been saying that about every area of the team since I started this series.
Playing half their games in the notoriously tricky Heinz Field, and with outdoor games at all their division opponents, you would expect the Steelers to be at or near the bottom of the field goal percentage charge, but they actually finished seventh in the league by hitting 90.3% of their field goals.
Credit Shawn Suisham with being a good, serviceable kicker, but some of that might be attributable to the coaches knowing when they can and cannot attempt a field goal. I would argue, however, knowing your weaknesses is at least as important as knowing your strengths. It might not be very crowd pleasing, but discretion can be the better part of valor, and sometimes punting from your opponent’s 30 is preferable to attempting a 47-yard field goal toward the open end of Heinz Field.
The Steelers were T17 in the league for field goals attempted, demonstrating my previous point. They seemed to know when the smart choice was to not try a field goal. Of course, it could just mean they were hardly ever in field goal range, too, but I’m going to be optimistic.
On the other side of the ball, the Steelers held their opponents to a field goal completion percentage of 84.9. Of course, as I mentioned before, some of that could be due to the swirling winds of Heinz Field.
As with punting, none of these numbers is especially good or bad. With the exception of their field goal completion percentage, the Steelers were middle of the road when kicking field goals.
Suisham might be a serviceable kicker, but he is not booting balls out of the back of the end zone on kickoffs. The Steelers were T23 in the NFL for touchbacks with a meager 1.8 per game. Houston is the only playoff team that had a worse average.
And their opponent return average of 16th worst in the NFL at 24.0 yards.
Credit the Steelers with not being desperate. They are one of only five teams in the entire league that attempted no on-side kicks during the year. (Incidentally, all five of those other teams made the playoffs. Eight teams tried three or more on-side kicks during the year. None of them made the playoffs except for…wait for it…that’s right, the ravens.)
When returning kicks, the Steelers managed to gain an average of 25.3 yards per kick, good for ninth in the league. They scored no touchdowns on kick returns, but at least they didn’t fumble any, either.
What does all this mean? Well, I’m sure if you are reading this you are bright enough to see where I’m going. There was nothing really exceptional on special teams. In fact, the only stat that really stood out to me when researching this article was the made field goal percentage. On the hand, nothing was truly awful either, with the exception of the abysmal punt return numbers. Overall, I have to give the Steelers special teams a C.