Steelers Need To Improve Punt Rankings

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

Friday, April 06, 2007
By John Smathers
Steelers Fever Columnist

I have heard the question asked many times: Why did the Steelers, with an offense and a defense both ranked in the top 10, have to go 6-2 in the second half just to finish 8-8?

Santonio HolmesThere are two answers that come immediately to mind and the first one should just jump right out at you: turnovers. The Steelers were guilty of 35 of them, fourth most in the league. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw a league-high 23 interceptions and running back Willie Parker lost four fumbles, second only to San Francisco's Frank Gore, who coughed up five.

That will keep your team from scoring a lot of points. As it was, the Steelers scored a very respectable 353 points, but they could have scored a lot more.

The second answer isn't a big secret, but it's not quite as obvious and it brings up an issue worth considering before the Steelers partake in the NFL draft later this month: field position and special teams.

I'm already on record saying that the Steelers need to relieve themselves of Chris Gardocki and his dismal overall punting average (41.3) and inside-the-20 percentage (16.9), so let's move along to average starting field position and the return game.

The Steelers' average starting field position on offense was 27.94, or basically their own 28 yard line, which ranked 29th in the league. The Baltimore Ravens averaged at the 32.86, or almost their own 33, which was best in the league. Five yards doesn't seem like a big difference, but on average, it was huge.

Now on defense, the Steelers again wallowed near the bottom (30th), with opponents starting on average at their own 32.69-yard line. Baltimore (no surprise) was tops again at 28.17.

I don't think it was coincidence that Baltimore dominated the division and the Steelers were just plain dominated some of the time.

So how do they straighten this out? Well, again, say so long to Gardocki. That would be a big help. Deeper kickoffs by Jeff Reed would help, too, but I'm not ready to kick Skippy to the curb over it. My concern is with returns. The Steelers weren't great on kick returns (22.1 yards per return), but I am specifically looking at punt returns, because hopefully the Steelers will be receiving more punt returns this season and fewer kickoffs.

It might come as a surprise to you that the Steelers were not dead last in punt, or even kick, returns last year. There was a lot of hand wringing about it and incidents like Ricardo Colcough's infamous (some say season-turning) muff in the first Cincinnati game really made the woeful punt return game an issue.

But the Steelers weren't even close to last in the league. They averaged 8.4 yards per return, good for 19th in the league. I guess 22 fair catches had something to do with that. Twenty-two is a lot, but considering how much trouble they had catching punts and holding onto them early in the season, it wasn't an all-bad thing.

Actually, the Steelers could stand a little consistency in their punt return game. In 2005, the team averaged 10.2 yards/return, third in the league, thanks largely to Antwaan Randle El. But the season before, with Randle El, the team averaged only 8.3. Go back another year, again with Randle El, and the average was 12.2. Finally, in 2002, in Randle El's first year of returning punts, the team averaged only 6.9 yards per return.

It's like a yo-yo, which I guess means that the team is in for an up-year in 2007.

But who will be returning punts? Santonio Holmes handled 26 punts last year. He did a good job with 10.2 yards/return and improved as the season went on. Holmes could be the guy again this year, but hopefully they will turn him loose more often. He made 21 of those 22 fair catches. If he's got the ball control part of it down, it's time to let him make a play.

Mike Tomlin might want to take a look at other guys, but he doesn't have a lot of choices on the current roster. Dare I say, Colcough could get another chance, if he's still around. Then there's Willie Reid, who was sold to us as a possible return specialist when he was drafted. He has to stay healthy and on the roster, but maybe he's another Fast Willie in the making.

I don't expect the Steelers to draft anyone with the return game in mind, as they did last year. But if Reid doesn't stick and OC Bruce Arians is serious about a serious four-receiver set, they should bring at least one more receiver in to challenge Cedrick Wilson and Nate Washington.

Most of the best punt returners in the draft also happen to be wide receivers. You wouldn't think the Steelers would expend another high-round pick on a receiver, but anything is possible and there are possibilities.

Ted Ginn, Jr., a small but fast teammate of Holmes at Ohio State, could very well be there at No. 15 for the Steelers. Ginn could make an immediate impact in the return game. He averaged 11.1 yards/punt returns and 24.4 yards/kick return last season.

Aundrae Allison (East Carolina) might make a nice third-round choice. He's a guy with speed that was plagued with injuries his senior year, but he did some nice things in the Senior Bowl.

If it's just pure speed you want, late-round prospect Yamon Figurs of Kansas State was the fastest player at the NFL Scouting Combine (4.30 in the 40).

Finally, the Steelers could try their luck with another Miami of Ohio guy in Ryne Robinson. He's another late-round probability, but all he achieved at Miami was to become second all-time in college football history in career punt return yards and touchdowns. He might have broken the records in both, but teams just stopped kicking to him last year.

Robinson is no stranger to Roethlisberger either. He scored Miami's first touchdown in the 2003 MAC title game, catching a 53-yard Big Ben bomb.

A RedHawk reunion could turn out to be the story of the year. But I'll settle for a significant improvement in the return game.