Over the last several years the Pittsburgh Steelers' special teams unit led by coordinator Danny Smith, has struggled to find consistency. In order to win football games, you need to be able to win in all three phases. Special teams can win and lose you games, it's that simple.
I have experienced this in real life with my high school football team I coach in Ohio. The first two games that we lost were due to terrible execution on punts. One was blocked, while the other was kicked short, giving the opposing team an opportunity to score, which they did.
It doesn't matter if it's high school football, college or the NFL, special teams play a huge role in determining if a team is going to take home a victory.
Against the Chicago Bears in a Week Three matchup at Soldier Field, Pittsburgh's special team's started off the game quite solid, and then chaos erupted.
Artie Burns' Pressure Forces Miss Field Goal
When the Steelers decided to take cornerback Artie Burns in the first-round a year ago, they really wanted a defender that can make impact plays. So far he has done an adequate job as the starting cornerback on defense.
Burns was a track star at the University of Miami and recorded a 4.46 - 40-yard dash time at the NFL Combine. Along with his speed, comes his length. He had a 31.5-inch vertical jump. If you add both of these traits together, you get a special teamer who has the ability to block a field goal.
In the above clip, Burns is lined up on the right side and has only one job: to use his speed, quickness and arm length to try and get a hand on the football. In this play, he's up against Bears second-round tight end Adam Shaheen, who is one big man. Listed at 6-foot-6-inches and 270-pounds, the former Ashland University star has only one job to do as well and that is to step to his right and put a hand on the incoming defender. It looks to me that Shaheen didn't anticipate Burns' speed and was late getting his hand and footing down correctly.
While Burns just missed the football, his pressure off the edge no doubt made Chicago Bears kicker Connor Barth very uncomfortable, resulting in the kick going wide right on the 47-yard field goal attempt.
CHAOS ERUPTS, Blocked FG Returned for a Touch... Oh, he FUMBLED IT!!!
This play was by far the craziest thing that happened in week three. The Pittsburgh Steelers were attempting a 35-yard field goal to go into the half down 14-10. Chris Boswell made 25 consecutive field goals up until this point, which tied the longest active streak in the NFL by former Bears and now 49ers kicker Robbie Gould. You could say that this was automatic points going into the half with momentum on the Steelers' side. Well, not so fast...
In the above clip, you can clearly see tight end Xavier Grimble didn't do his job. When you are blocking a defender on the field goal unit and you are listed as the wing defender, you need to step with your left foot (if you are on the left side), keep your other foot steady and don't move it, and put your hands out to slow the incoming player, who is trying to get his hand on the football.
Grimble's hand doesn't get there quick enough and Bears cornerback Sherrick McManis just went right under it and dove to block the kick. To say that Grimble was worried about the interior defender bothers me as Cameron Heyward had him all along. Oh, and Grimble's job is not Heyward's interior guy at all but rather McManis, who I'll give credit to for making a huge play for his team.
The same goes with the right side wing defender. Vance McDonald who is lined up on the right side does a nice job taking a giant step to his right and putting his hands out to block the guy. If you watch both Steelers athletes, you can see which one does their job accurately and who gives up the blocked field goal, which changed the entire complexity of the game.
Here is an angle that displays fantastic hustle by tight end Vance McDonald, who never gave up on the play. Even though Pittsburgh traded for McDonald hoping that he can impact on the offensive side of the football, I'll take his special team's contributions any day.
Bears cornerback Marcus Cooper was basically given a free touchdown as the ball went right into his hands after being blocked. As he raced down the sidelines, he had green grass ahead of him with the nearest Steelers player about 15-yards or so behind him at one point. Once Cooper reached the five-yard line, he slowed down drastically and at the one-yard line fumbled the football.
The ball went out of bounds after punter Jordan Berry illegally batted it. The half was considered over and the entire Steelers team except head coach Mike Tomlin went into the locker room. Tomlin stayed on the sideline as he awaited further confirmation as the play was being reviewed. Several minutes later the referees stated that due to the illegal bat of the football, Chicago will have the ball at the half-yard line with no time left on the clock (one free play). After a false start penalty moved the Bears back five yards, kicker Connor Barth was sent on to attempt a field goal, giving Chicago a 17-7 lead going into the half.
You don't see this type of bizarre action happen in football often, but when it does, you are either shaking your head or celebrating. I don't think Bears fans are celebrating too hard. They know this would have never occurred if Cooper just ran full force into the end zone and then started his celebration. Cooper talked to the media after the game and stated:
That was just a mistake on my part, I thought I was in (the end zone) but obviously I wasn't.
Head coach John Fox commented on the play:
He will learn from it, Nobody feels worse than (Cooper) does. It’s a matter of focus and finishing. He understands that.
Many Bears fans wanted Cooper cut off the team if indeed the team lost Sunday. I don't think that would have happened as he put on an absolute show defensively according to Pro Football Focus on Twitter.
It was a mistake for the Steelers to go after Marcus Cooper in coverage today pic.twitter.com/1OLeI6nA0v
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) September 24, 2017
Last season when Cooper was on the Arizona Cardinals, he finished the season with four interceptions, which led the team. I think this young athlete will be just fine moving forward. Dumb plays happen all the time in football, but I just wish that the half would have ended because these three points that Connor Barth put on the board to end the half really was the difference in going into overtime or just winning the football game by three.
As you can see, special teams from the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday was not the best representation of what this unit can really accomplish in 2017. Each year under Danny Smith I have seen this unit fold in some games but for the most part, they produce a lot of great games, like last week versus the Minnesota Vikings.
It's always hit or miss but for the most part, the field goals are automatic from Chris Boswell, the punts are accurately pinned inside enemy territory by Jordan Berry, and so far this season, not a single return has passed mid-field on a kickoff. Special teams will win or lose you games, so let's hope that Coach Smith and company can bounce back and get on the winning side of things moving forward.