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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

Steelers Sign another from XFL, DE/LB Dewayne Hendrix

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The Steelers have signed former Pitt defensive end Dewayne Hendrix, Steelers Now has confirmed. The news of Hendrix’s signing was first reported by NFL Draft Diamonds.

Hendrix, 24, was most recently with the St. Louis Battlehawks of the XFL. He also spent time on the practice squad of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins last season.

In five games with St. Louis, Hendrix made four tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry.

A two-year starter at Pitt after transferring from Tennessee, Hendrix finished his Panthers career with 50 tackles, 10 tackles for a loss and 7.5 sacks. He played in 25 games total for Pitt from 2016-18 and made 24 starts.

Hendrix missed the 2016 season with a season-ending ankle injury suffered on the first series of the game. He sat out 2015 at Pitt after playing in seven games with the Volunteers as a true freshman.

At 6-foot-3 and 275 pounds, Hendrix played defensive end at Pitt, but could be more suited to be an outside linebacker in the Steelers’ 3-4 scheme. He’s essentially the same height and weight as starting outside linebacker Bud Dupree.

Hendrix is the fifth XFL alum the Steelers have signed, joining long snapper and linebacker Christian Kuntz, defensive end Cavon Walker, tackle Jarron Jones and safety Tyree Kinnel.

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Analysis

What to Expect from a 38-Year-Old Starting Quarterback

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On March 2nd, Ben Roethlisberger turned 38. When the NFL season starts in September, Ben will be 38 years old and entering his 17th year as the starting quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even at this age, Ben is reaching rarefied air. Since 1969, there have been only 54 quarterbacks that played into their age 38 season. Of those 54, 46 of them started a game and just 22 finished the season with starts in more than half the games that season.

Discounting the fact that Roethlisberger is recovering from elbow surgery, what can we expect from a 38-year-old quarterback? Surprisingly, the answer is plenty.

From 1969-1999 quarterbacks playing in their age 38 season on average threw for 2,665 yards with 15 touchdowns against 14 interceptions. Not gaudy numbers, but some of that has to do with the eras in which these quarterbacks played. Even more encouraging, they had a 63% winning percentage.

From 1969-1999, five Hall of Fame quarterbacks played to age 38. Some experienced more success than others.

In 1978 Fran Tarkenton threw for 25 touchdowns and over 3,400 yards but tossed up 32 interceptions and went 8-7-1 on the season. In 1983, Ken Stabler went 7-7 at age 38, but threw 18 interceptions against only 9 touchdowns and fewer than 2,000 yards. Warren Moon went 9-6 in 1994, but had more interceptions (19) than touchdowns (18). In 1999, Dan Marino went 5-6 at age 38, throwing 12 touchdowns against 17 interceptions.

On the positive side, all-time great Joe Montana had 3,283 yards through the air and a 2:1 TD to INT ratio (18-9) with the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994 and John Elway won a Super Bowl in his age 38 season. Elway may have been relying on Terrell Davis at that time, but still put up nearly 3,000 yards along with 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions.

As sports science and training regimes have improved, it’s become more commonplace to find quarterbacks 38 and older still having success, or even dominating in the league.

In 2007, Brett Favre at 38 threw for over 4,000 yards and added 28 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions as the Packers went 13-3. Kurt Warner a year after his Super Bowl loss to the Steelers still had plenty in the tank at 38. The veteran quarterback started 15 games, going 10-5 with 3,753 yards, 26 touchdowns and 14 picks. Even journeyman Josh McCown put up 18 touchdowns to only 9 interceptions and 2,900 yards in his age 38 season.

As far as Roethlisberger’s direct contemporaries, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees all put together superlative performances at age 38.

Peyton Manning, 4,727 yards, 39 TD, 15 INT (12-4)
Tom Brady, 4,770 yards, 36 TD, 7 INT (12-4)
Drew Brees, 4,334 yards, 23 TD, 8 INT (11-5)

However, depending on how you view Roethlisberger, a closer proxy may be former Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers. Rivers’ age 38 season was statistically one of his worst as the team went 5-11. Rivers threw for 4,600 yards but threw nearly as many interceptions (20) as touchdowns (23).

What will Roethlisberger be like when he comes back? If history offers any clues, there’s no reason to think he can’t be a highly effective player on his return. Quarterbacks at his level in this era– i.e. future Hall of Famers–have historically had success at age 38 and beyond.

It’s impossible to predict when a player will “lose it”. But as long as his elbow is healed and there’s not a significant loss of arm strength, there’s no reason to think that Roethlisberger won’t be able to return to his per-injury, high-level of play.

NFL Quarterbacks at age 38, >7 starts, since 2000

PlayerYearAgeTmGGSCmpAttCmp%YdsTDIntPick6TD%Int%RateSkYdsSk%Y/AAY/AANY/AY/GWLT4QCGWD
Vinny Testaverde200138NYJ161626044158.962752151413.43.1775.3181223.90%6.245.495.01172106055
Rich Gannon200338OAK7712522555.561274642.71.7873.517907.00%5.665.44.6418225012
Brad Johnson200638MIN151427043961.5275091532.13.4272292006.20%6.265.144.39183.368023
Brett Favre200738GNB161635653566.544155281515.22.895.715932.70%7.777.557.18259.7133024
Jeff Garcia200838TAM121124437664.89271212613.21.690.2231005.80%7.217.136.4722665013
Kurt Warner200938ARI151533951366.083753261425.12.7393.2241724.50%7.327.16.46250.2105012
Kerry Collins201038TEN10716027857.551823148152.8882.213914.50%6.566.275.68182.325011
Jon Kitna201038DAL10920931865.7223651612353.7788.9211006.20%7.446.756.03236.545012
Peyton Manning201438DEN161639559766.164727391516.52.51101.5171182.80%7.928.097.68295.4124011
Tom Brady201538NWE161640262464.42477036725.81.12102.2382255.70%7.648.297.48298.1124022
Carson Palmer201738ARI7716426761.4219789713.42.6284.4221507.60%7.416.95.86282.634022
Josh McCown201738NYJ131326739767.2529261894.52.2794.5392648.90%7.377.266225.158012
Drew Brees201738NOR161638653672.01433423814.31.49103.9201453.60%8.098.277.71270.9115022
Philip Rivers201938LAC161639059165.994615232013.93.3888.5342225.40%7.817.066.32288.4511012

All data from Pro Football Reference

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Steelers

What Eric Ebron Can Bring to the Steelers

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When the Steelers signed free agent tight end Eric Ebron to a two-year, $12 million dollar deal, these kinds of performances probably helped convince them to make the offer.

The 6-foot-4, 253-pound tight end shows fantastic body control, great feet, and a penchant for making combat catches over multiple defenders. What’s not to like?

Over the past two seasons, the former 1st round pick of the Detroit Lions is 8th in receptions (97) and yards (1125) and first in touchdowns (17) amongst all tight ends.

Now the bad news. The kind of things you don’t see in highlight videos.

Ebron is last in the NFL over the last two seasons in catch percentage at just 59.9% (50 receptions minimum). That’s 10 points lower than Steelers starter Vance McDonald over the same time period. In 2019 with the Colts, Ebron took a major step back–which can be somewhat excused with Andrew Luck’s retirement–starting only two games. Ebron also had his receptions and yards halved from 2018, 66 to 31 and 750 to 375.

Obviously the Steelers are hoping to get the 2018 version of Ebron that racked up 14 touchdowns and 44 first downs and was sixth in the league in receptions and fifth in yards.

If Ebron can rediscover his red zone magic and thrive with a veteran quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger they could have a dynamic pair of tight ends between he and Vance McDonald.

A big if, but a healthy McDonald and a revitalized Ebron would give the Steelers a receiving tight end combination in the top echelon of the league at a cap hit of under $10,000,000 dollars.

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