By Matthew Marczi
It was an unlikely Labor Day for the Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday, who rarely see fit to do much tinkering with their roster. This year, however, is different, as they added two players that they presumably believe will help bolster their special teams performance in 2013, which has been an area of concern for a number of years.
The big acquisition was the signing of former New England Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko, who became available following a subpar preseason performance that saw him ousted by a rookie undrafted free agent, partially due to the $1.323 million he was owed. Because he cleared waivers before the Steelers signed him, the team is not on the hook for that salary, but financial terms of the signing have not yet been released.
In a corresponding move, the Steelers released incumbent sophomore punter Drew Butler, who was able to hold off veteran challenger Brian Moorman this preseason with a strong showing in the finale.
For his career in three seasons with the Patriots, Mesko holds a 44.2 yards per punt average, but more significantly, a net of 40.7. This is partially due to the statistic that Steelers Digest writer Bob Labriola described as the “key”: “101-of-175 punts could not be returned by the opposition”. Just 42.3 percent of his punts were returnable; 2012 featured a career-low of 38.3 percent. Just 15 of his punts in three years either went for a touchback or were blocked.
As a rookie, Butler struggled with consistency, outkicking his coverage a fair numbers of times, which was made easier by his variable hang times. Mesko should help bring greater consistency to the position.
The other acquisition of the day was the waiver claim of cornerback Antwon Blake, an undrafted rookie from 2012 who was released by the Jacksonville Jaguars after leading the team with 12 special teams tackles. In order to make room for Blake on the roster, the Steelers released cornerback Isaiah Green, whose earning of a roster spot raised some eyebrows.
Green has impressive speed, but Blake already comes in with a special teams pedigree, so rather than relying on an unproven commodity in Green, the Steelers have upgraded the gunner position with a player who has already ‘done it’ before. Green very well may not be gone, however; he did make the roster, after all, and has practice squad eligibility. The team could very well decide to release cornerback Devin Smith from the practice squad to add Green, who should not have much trouble clearing waivers.
Assuming that Blake will actually fulfill the role of gunner, he should make a strong tandem on special teams along with fellow cornerback Curtis Brown, who has registered a combined 28 special teams tackles—according to Pro Football Focus—in his 27 career games. Rookie safety Shamarko Thomas also really flashed as a gunner this preseason on special teams.