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Steelers Put Kick Return Woes under the Microscope

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PITTSBURGH — In the aftermath of Sunday’s 26-23 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin came under fire for his decision to kickoff at the beginning of the overtime period.

The decision is a rare one amongst NFL head coaches and is usually reserved for when the wind is a significant factor.

Sunday, it wasn’t. 

The significant factor in Tomlin’s mind was the lack of success of his kickoff return unit of moving the ball out from the shadow of its own goalposts. According to Tomlin, part of that is the rare talent of Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker. But it also represented a dissatisfaction in his own unit.

“Both,” he said during his Monday press conference. “We didn’t block well enough. But we also have to acknowledge things don’t happen in a vacuum. Tucker was awesome in that football game, not that we are surprised by that.”

The Steelers will work to improve a unit that has underwhelmed statistically throughout the season. Primary kickoff returner Ryan Switzer has averaged 18 yards on four returns this season, the fourth-lowest average in the league amongst players with four or more returns. Johnny Holton hasn’t fared much better, averaging 18.33 yards on three returns.

Tomlin said that they have plenty of areas that the unit can be improved upon.

“Positioning, eyes, rate of play, speed of play,” he said. “But we are also getting better as a staff of finding that division of labor and leaning on the strength and minimize the weaknesses of the collective of the group. We are still very much developing in all ways in that regard.”

This week could be a challenging one to make personnel changes. With the Steelers dealing with quarterback Mason Rudolph in the concussion protocol, they’ll likely have to make one roster move to add Paxton Lynch to the roster. That move could come at the expense of a special teams player.

That’s going to put an even greater onus on the team’s return men to make a couple guys miss.

“As return men, we’ve got to be better as returns and just be be better with our scheme overall.” Johnny Holton said before practice on Wednesday. “When I say scheme, I mean you’ve got to have the proper technique, do what we’re coached to do to better.”

He said that when it comes to kickoff returns, it really only takes one long to make a big difference. One 100-yard return can lift a returner’s average for an entire season, and maybe even more impactfully, can scare kickers away from using the kind of tactics that Tucker had success with on Sunday.

“It ain’t hard to improve,” Holton said. “If we go out there and run a kick return back, everybody will be like ‘Our kick returns are good.’

“If you have a big splash play on kick return, the kickers will start kicking it out of the end zone. But if they feel like they’ve got a good enough chance to hold you in the 25, they’ll kick it at the 1-yard line and make you return it.”

Steelers

Terrell Edmunds Explains New Nickname

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Terrell Edmunds informs the media, including Mike Asti and Alan Saunders of Steelers Now, about his new nickname. Call him “Old Fashioned” from now on. He also expresses how feels about the current state of the Steelers, and that’s obviously includes being happy about the team’s record but also understanding the need to improve.

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Steelers

Steelers Week 10 Game vs. Bengals Flexed to 4:25 p.m. National Broadcast

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The Steelers game against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 10 has been flexed into a national television broadcast slot.

The Steelers and Bengals will now kick off at Heinz Field on Sunday, Nov. 15 at 4:25 p.m. The game had originally been scheduled to kick at 1 p.m. It will be broadcast nationally on FOX. All of that weekend’s early games will be broadcast on FOX, as CBS has coverage of The Masters, which was rescheduled from this summer.

The game will be Pittsburgh’s first matchup against 2020 NFL Draft No. 1 pick, Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow.

The Steelers are also playing a 4:25 p.m., nationally broadcast game in Week 9 against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium. That game will be televised by CBS.

That will be the second time this season the Steelers will be placed in a nation-wide television slot. The team opened the season playing on ESPN’s Monday Night Football against the New York Giants.

The Steelers’ Week 7 game against the Tennessee Titans was protected by CBS in a 1 p.m. time slot, but was broadcast nearly nationwide, with CBS only showing two other 1 p.m. games.

The Steelers will play on national television at least three more times this season: against the Baltimore Ravens on Thursday, Nov. 26, on Sunday Night Football against the Buffalo Bills on Dec. 13 and at the Cincinnati Bengals on Monday, Dec. 21.

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What Does Being NFL’s Last Unbeaten Team Portend for Steelers?

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The Steelers are the last remaining undefeated team in the NFL after beating the formerly unbeaten Tennessee Titans on Sunday while the Seattle Seahawks lost on Sunday night, leaving the Steelers as the only 6-0 team in the nation.

What does that mean for them in the long term? Not as much as you might think.

In the last 20 years, one of the last undefeated teams didn’t even make the playoffs three times: 2002 4-0 San Diego Chargers, 2014 3-0 Philadelphia Eagles and the 2016 5-0 Minnesota Vikings. Ten other times, one of the last undefeated teams (some years, there are more than one), lost in the first or second round of the NFL playoffs.

Just once since 2000 has the last undefeated team won the Super Bowl, in 2006 when the Indianapolis Colts started 9-0 on the way to winning Super Bowl XLI.

In the first three decades of the league’s modern era, that was significantly different. The last undefeated team won six Super Bowls in the 1990s, two in the 1980s and three in the 1970s, including the 1972 Miami Dolphins, who finished a perfect 17-0, the only team in NFL history to do so.

More recently, being the last undefeated team has resulted in a bunch of Super Bowl losses, including the last time the Steelers were the league’s last unbeaten team. 

The 2001 St. Louis Rams, 2002 Oakland Raiders, 2004 Eagles, 2007 New England Patriots, 2009 Colts, 2010 Steelers, 2015 Carolina Panthers, 2018 Los Angeles Rams and the 2019 San Francisco 49ers all made it to the championship game after being the last undefeated team before losing in the end.

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