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The Steelers’ Un-Special Teams

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By Alan Robinson

Welcome back to Pittsburgh, Danny Smith. Now get to work.

Smith is the Steelers’ third special teams coordinator in seven months — not that long ago, only Pitt head coaches turned over that quickly — and an analysis of the Steelers’ 2012 special teams shows there is considerable work for him to do.

Partly because of a falloff by primary punt returner Antonio Brown — and one glaring touchdown-causing mistake that cost them a game and perhaps the playoffs — the Steelers’ special teams ranked only 17th in the 32-team NFL this season, according to Football Outsiders.

That represents a substantial drop-off from 2012, when the Steelers were a more-than-good No. 9 overall.

Then again, maybe not all of that decline was entirely the Steelers’ fault.

According to the analysis site, the Steelers were 30th in the league in Hidden Elements — those generally out of their control, such as the distance by opponents on punts and kickoffs and opposing field goals.

The Steelers also were 29th in weather, the estimated effect of weather, altitude and domed stadiums on each team’s special teams performance.

But some statistics don’t lie.

When the Steelers were 12-4 in 2011, they averaged10.5 yards on punt returns — all but three of them by Brown — and 25.1 yards on kickoff returns, with all but eight by Brown.

This past season, when they slid to 8-8, their kickoff return average improved slightly to 25.3 — the since-released Chris Rainey handled 39 of them — but their punt average averaged dipped to 7.3 yards — or about a three yards per possession difference. Brown’s average went from 10.8 to 6.8.

Their most effective punt returner was Emmanuel Sanders, who had a 10.3 average on nine returns.

Drew Butler averaged 43.8 yards per punt during his rookie season, off from the 46.1 of Daniel Sepulveda and the 45.0 of Jeremy Kapinos in 2011.

Kicker Shaun Suisham was responsible for the one substantially upgraded area, field goal kicking. He was 28 of 31 (90.3 percent) compared to 23 of 31 (74.2 percent) in 2011.

The most glaring special teams mistake was the 63-yard punt return touchdown return by Jacoby Jones that decided the Super Bowl champion Ravens’ 13-10 win in Pittsburgh on Nov. 18. That score effectively eliminated the Steelers from the postseason, though they hardly knew it at the time.

Smith is a former Pittsburgh Central Catholic athlete and coach who spent the last nine seasons as the Redskins special teams coach. Washington’s special teams ranked 27th in the Football Outsiders rankings, down from 21st a season ago.

The Steelers couldn't catch Jacoby Jones ... and they never caught up in the standings.

The Steelers couldn’t catch Jacoby Jones … and they never caught up in the standings.

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