By Matthew Marczi
While Pittsburgh Steelers safety Robert Golden may have seen his playing time on defense fall off a cliff thanks to Cortez Allen and Shamarko Thomas, he has been and remains an instrumental part of the team’s strategy and success in the third phase of the game: special teams.
In fact, recently, his special teams play has been recognized—rightfully, based on my observations over the course of this season—by Pro Football Focus, which named him, in essence, to the site’s ‘All-Kickoff Coverage Team’.
Golden plays as the L2—the player second-furthest out from the kicker’s left side—on kickoffs. He also plays the up back on punt coverage, which is essentially the final line of defense to prevent a block. Occasionally, he also plays on punt returns and stalk blocks the opposing up back.
It is not necessarily as a blocker in which he excels, however, which I will get to later. This is likely why he is not on all punt return units. No, his best quality is his excellent contain on kickoffs, and his tackling, when necessary, but he is often not the man closest to the returner.
Still, he shares the team lead in total special teams tackles, both in Pro Football Focus’ data and in the team’s own estimation, though the specific numbers differ. The former credits him with five solo tackles and an assist, for six total, while the latter credits him with three solos and two assists.
In the past game against the Oakland Raiders, Golden had one tackle, on which he forced a fumble that eventually went out of bounds, on a punt. He also downed two punts, although that includes the punt that was partially tipped and was considered an illegal touch, which went for a penalty. The other punt that he downed was the one that skirted the goal line before settling well within the five.
As the up back, he had a strong, though relatively easy game against the Raiders. The tackle that he registered actually came on a play in which he was knocked to the ground and had to pull himself off the ground first. It is worth noting that he had nothing to do with the partially blocked punt.
On the other hand, as a blocker, it would be fair to say that he had mixed success. Stalking Jeremy Stewart, the Raiders’ up back, Golden did an excellent job blocking him on his first opportunity, knocking him to the ground. On the second opportunity, his lane was crossed, but he ultimately caught up and walled him off on Antonio Brown’s long return.
On his other two opportunities, he allowed Stewart to cut inside him on a fair catch, although two other Raiders were closer, and then he completely missed. The long snapper was the first down the field, flushing Brown right, and Stewart brought him down at the four for a five-yard loss on the most critical punt return of the game.
Despite allowing a tackle for a loss on a punt return, Pro Football Focus still gave Golden a 1.5 grade for his work in the punting game against the Raiders. In fact, of his 4.5 overall grade, 3.0 comes from his work on punts, with only 1.5 coming from kickoffs.
On coverage, he has shown himself to be a consistent and reliable player, both in assignment and in tackling. He also does not draw penalties, and he makes his fair share of tackles. Though he may have some inconsistencies on the opposite end of special teams, he certainly deserves the recognition that he received from Pro Football Focus this week.