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Steelers Still Facing One Critical Issue That Could Hold Team Back



Steelers STs coach Danny Smith
Steelers STs coach Danny Smith looks on against the Cincinnati Bengals on Nov. 26, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

CINCINNATI — The Steelers’ performance against the Cincinnati Bengals in their 16-10 win was promising. But it was not perfect, and Mike Tomlin pointed to one area that he thought fell below the team’s line — special teams. It was not the only thing that struggled in the first half, but when you look at the game flow of that half, it contributed greatly to the Bengals heading into the half with a lead.

The Steelers’ special teams are not going well the last few weeks. Punting has sometimes been an issue, but Pressley Harvin III was not the issue this week. No, it was the punt coverage. Two times, Pittsburgh could have downed it inside the five-yard line and instead turned it into touchbacks with guys in position. That’s not good special teams, and it does affect how things go.

But punt return, now potentially without Calvin Austin III, also got called for two penalties. On those times, Pittsburgh would have taken over near the 50-yard line and 40-yard line, respectively. That’s a significant swing in field position. It matters, especially with how Pittsburgh tries to win the games.

Steelers STs Danny Smith

Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith against the Green Bay Packers, Nov.12, 2023 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

Kick return is a net zero. But kick coverage has taken a nosedive, too. On a squib kick, running back Trayveon Williams burst up field to the 47-yard line. The only above-average unit right now is the kicking unit, where Chris Boswell is immaculate. But Tomlin was not very happy with his group, either.

“Field position was a component of the first half,” Tomlin said. “We gave up a kickoff return to midfield, we had two touchbacks on punt circumstances when we had the chance to put them on a long field. We had some penalties in the punt return game. The field positioning component made it more uncomfortable than it should have been.”

Even when talking about Thompson’s interception, who he praised, he thought to bring up the special teams play. Tomlin seemed particularly irked by the fact they so consistently fell short in the field position component.

“Sequencing like that, with complementary football is really important,” Tomlin said. That’s why I was upset about the field positioning component of special teams in the first half. We had a punt return to midfield and had a penalty that lost us 20-plus yards. We had a couple of touchbacks (that) we had a chance to down inside the five or 10-yard line. That field positioning component in special teams in the first half really minimized the complementary component we’re discussing.”

It’s not hard to see why he was angry, either. The special teams have to be better, or Pittsburgh could find themselves on the losing end of one of these games. They must get better on the details of this unit, as it was the apparent weakness of the team against the Bengals. Pittsburgh faces Greg Dortch for Arizona next, who has some of the same shiftiness and speed they have faced in recent weeks. They must prepare for that challenge, too.