The Pittsburgh Steelers have rarely benefitted greatly from special teams throughout the organization’s history.
Chuck Noll famously refused to employ special teams coaches until late in his tenure, when he shifted responsibilities for both defensive line coach John Kolb and inside linebackers coach Dennis Fitzgerald, requesting that they jointly coach the special teams unit in 1987.
Noll had taken control of special teams duties himself prior to that, making the Steelers the last team in the league to dedicate a coach to special teams at that time.
The team has even still rarely gotten much impact out of its units since then, however. Most recently, Antonio Brown has contributed well as a returner, and has three return touchdowns in his first four seasons, making the Pro Bowl once on special teams.
Coverage units have been equally uninspiring, with the punting display last season being particularly bad thanks in large part due to a turnstile at punter.
Better punting would obviously go a long way toward improving the unit as a whole, but outside of a few players, the coverage units could use tweaking. And that could come disproportionately from the secondary this year.
The Steelers have clear, established players at the top five defensive back positions, most of whom are not frequent special teams contributors.
But some of the more fringe secondary players have made themselves indispensable on special teams, which could force the team to consider carrying up to 11 defensive backs.
Cornerback Antwon Blake and safety Robert Golden, in particular, became arguably the two best coverage players on the team during the course of the 2013 season.
Safety Shamarko Thomas is also a reliable gunner, while Will Allen was originally brought to the Steelers specifically for his special teams experience.
New cornerback signing Brice McCain has been part of the Houston Texans’ special teams units for years, and could find his home there this season. That’s 10 defensive backs right there when you add in the standard nickel package.
Would they be willing to risk relegating Shaquille Richardson to the practice squad, who from the sounds of it is much different from last year’s fifth-round failure, Terry Hawthorne? If Richardson shows well on special teams, then they could be forced to make a decision between himself, McCain, and Allen.
Or they could pilfer an extra spot from another position. Mike Tomlin sounded convinced earlier this offseason that he could do with his top two backs what most teams do with three. Plus he could always resort to handing the ball to the fullback if necessary.
If they stick to just seven spots between the backs and tight ends, that could open up a spot for an extra defensive back. Alternatively, they could decide to carry just eight offensive linemen.
Carrying only two quarterbacks seems unlikely, while this scenario already assumes that they carry six defensive linemen. Keeping less than nine linebackers this year seems unfeasible.
If they want to add to their special teams by carrying an extra defensive back, it will likely have to come from the offensive side of the ball.