Pop quiz. What is two-thirds written as a percentage? 66.7. If that was a grade, you'd virtually be failing. Because one aspect of the three in the game, special teams, was not successful, the Steelers season bore an uncanny resemblance to that figure.© 2010 Steelers Universe
Quietly, almost unnoticeably at times, special teams has always been an issue. Since 1987, when the team began using a special teams coach, not one of them has lasted longer than four seasons. Last years pitfalls serve as a perfect microcosm for our special teams the past 25 years. The team allowed four kicks to be returned for touchdowns in 2009 and when Jamaal Charles or Bernard Scott wasn't making fans cringe and turn away, teams still had good starting field position. Jeff Reed's short kickoffs received much of the criticism. Daniel Sepulevda, perhaps deserving a pass after coming off a torn ACL, was just average. And while Stefan Logan was a bright spot on kickoff returns, he was as equally unsuccessful returning punts.
There may be light at the end of the tunnel. In addition to a team reunion, this offseason was dedicated to special teams. Even before the draft, the team made an effort to improve. CFL'ers Derrick Doggett and Renauld Williams were brought in, each having quality experience on special teams. The successes of players such as Stefan Logan and Miami's Cameron Wake have provided optimism for predecessors. Antwaan Randle El also has special teams experience as a return man and though he may not be used much there, having that versatility is a welcomed addition.
The draft also produced multiple special teamers while still having long-term potential. Outside linebacker Jason Worilds hails from Virginia Tech and Frank Beamer's famous "Beamerball" which places a heavy emphasis on special teams. Third rounder Emmanuel Sanders has some punt return experience and his skillset, a speedy player who is "quick to the tuck" as wide receivers coach Scotty Montgomery has claimed, could give him a chance to contribute on special teams early in his career. Thaddeus Gibson, an outside linebacker from Ohio State saw extensive work on special teams his freshman year. Fifth rounder Stevenson Sylvester calls special team duty his "speciality", stating in his conference call, "Utah used me in my first two years there all the time. That’s my thing. Covering kicks, covering punts, I can do a punt return or a kick return. It doesn't matter." Antonio Brown, the teams sixth round pick from Central Michigan, has a multitude of experience in all facets of special teams. He scored three times on returns, averaging 22.1 yards per kick return and 9.6 yards per punt. His career highs in kick and punt returns are 27.1 and 13.2, respectively. On top of it all, he also got time working as a gunner, a place where past special team standouts like Chidi Iwuoma and Sean Morey earned their paycheck from. Even seventh round defensive end Doug Worthington could get a look as a wedge player or buster on kickoffs. Ziggy Hood saw some time in that role last season so the chances aren't impossible. The coaching staff was also shaken up. Bob Ligashesky was let go, now the tight ends coach for the Broncos, and the ultra-experienced Al Everest has been brought in.
Even though the days of school and pop quizzes are gone, special teams will once again be tested. Hopefully this time around, they'll come out with a better grade.