Analysis: Special teams jobs up for grabs?


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Steelers kicker Chris Boswell (9) and punter Jordan Berry (4) both have competition this season - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Typically, the focus on a football team in terms of position battles is on the offense and defense. Special teams are largely an afterthought.

But anyone who watched a single Steelers game in 2018 knows this team had issues aplenty with their special teams performances, most notably at placekicker.

That's why starting Tuesday, when the Steelers open Phase 3 of their OTAs, there will be a lot of attention on the special teams units.

We’ll take a look at the special teams battles and what to look for as they are set to begin.  We’ll do these in order of significance, with the most pressing battles listed first:


Perhaps no player signified the Steelers' struggles in 2018 and eventual falling short of the postseason than the issues through which Chris Boswell suffered.

A year after making 35-of-38 field goal attempts and earning a Pro Bowl berth in 2017, Boswell was rewarded with a brand new five-year, $19.72-million contract. He promptly went out and turned into arguably the league's worst full-time kicker.

What is meant by full-time kicker?

Typically, there are around 20 good ones and the other 12 teams cycle through kickers throughout the season, trying to find a guy who can do the job. In fact, that's how Boswell got his job with the Steelers in the first place back in 2015.

But he was just 13 of 20 on field goal attempts last season, also missing five PATs. And several of the misses were costly and out of character for a guy who made four game-winning kicks in 2017.

A groin injury suffered in Week 16 at New Orleans finally landed Boswell on IR, ending his season and allowing him to turn the page to 2019 a week sooner than expected.

The Steelers released veteran Matt McCrane, who replaced Boswell in Week 17, and kept rookie Matthew Wright as competition in this offseason.

Wright was the most prolific kicker in Central Florida history and has a big leg. But he also made just 77.5 percent of his field goal attempts in college.

Realistically, he's not really competition for Boswell. That will likely come from outside the organization if Boswell looks shaky again this season.

The job is his to lose, which he would do if he falters early.

Boswell counts $4.2 million against the team's salary cap in 2019. And it would cost them an additional $2.6 million if they cut him, bringing his cap hit to $6.2 million if he's not on the team.

The Steelers will give Boswell every opportunity to bounce back, not only because they trust him to be the kicker who hit more than 90 percent of his kicks in his first three seasons, but because they would take a financial hit if he doesn't work out.


The Steelers ranked 31st in the league in kickoff return average in 2019. They were 17th in punt return average.

That was with Ryan Switzer handling most of the duties.

The Steelers used Switzer in that capacity because Antonio Brown, who had handled punts, and JuJu Smith-Schuster, who took care of kickoffs, had become too important in the offense to use in those duties. That was especially magnified last season with Le'Veon Bell's holdout. They couldn't afford to have one of those major offensive cogs go down returning a punt or kick.

Receiver Diontae Johnson was added as a third-round draft pick at least in part because of his return skills. Johnson scored touchdowns on kick returns in each of his final two college seasons and averaged nearly 20 yards per punt return the past two seasons.

Will that translate from the MAC to the NFL? That remains to be seen. But the Steelers like his open field ability.

The Steelers haven't ranked in the top 10 in punt or kick returns since finishing fourth in the former in 2013. Even a move to league average in both stats would be a welcome addition.

Johnson missed some time at rookie minicamp with a mysterious injury. But it's not considered serious. And the sooner he gets onto the field, the sooner he can be about the business of winning the job.


Jordan Berry ranked 30th in gross punting average in 2018. He was only slightly better at 26th in net average. What he does do well, however, is place the ball inside the opposing 20, something that can hurt both of those numbers.

Berry ranked 10th in the league last season with 28 of his 63 punts (44.4 percent) downed inside the opposing 20. And he did so with just four touchbacks.

That's what the Steelers want out of him. They ask him to kick the ball directionally a lot, also hurting his overall average.

But even Berry admits he got off to a slow start in the opening month of 2018 before finishing strong.

In terms of ranking these issues, he's much lower on the list, even though he's third here.

The thing is, he's also replaceable, especially when his $1.525 million salary is factored into the equation.

The Steelers added rookie Ian Berryman of Western Carolina as an undrafted player following the draft. Berryman averaged 43.8 yards per punt in college.

But remember, if he makes the roster over Berry, he would cost just $495,666 against the cap. And the Steelers would save an addition $750,000. With cap displacement -- replacing a higher-paid player with a lower one -- the savings would be around $1 million.

If Berryman can show he can handle the duties at or close to the level of Berry, he could win a spot.


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