Special Teams Far From Special, Per Tomlin

A joke. A pun. Laughing to keep from crying. That’s how I interpret what Mike Tomlin said about his special teams unit at today’s press conference.

“We’ve not been special on special teams,” Tomlin said.

Tomlin attributed some of that to injuries. Not having Darrius Heyward-Bey for part of the year and losing Shamarko Thomas for the entire season. And the present day problems of not having Anthony Chickillo, Robert Golden, and a banged up Vince Williams.

Now, you can add Fitzgerald Toussaint to the injury report with a concussion, stressing the team’s kick return and upback situation.

To the former, the kick return situation, which I’m sure interests many more fans, Tomlin left a possible replacement up in the air. He said Demarcus Ayers or Justin Gilbert could still be viable options for the team.

“They are relative to what we’re looking at. Same thing could’ve been said about Cobi. We’ll see what happens. Stay tuned.”

While Tomlin is giving lip service to the idea, it’s unlikely either player will be a suitable replacement for Toussaint. Sammie Coates is healthy and will remain in his “primary” return man spot with a more blocking type likely settling into Toussaint’s “off man” role, should he not clear protocol.

Hamilton would make the most sense here because he’s a bigger, more physical player, while also getting the nod on kick returns when Coates missed.

Special teams struggled – again – against the Miami Dolphins. Chris Boswell banked an extra point off the upright, they allowed a long kick return, and took another penalty, while the kick return game floundered. On the upside, they did force a fumble on a kick return, though Miami recovered it.

David Todd made a reasonable assessment Sunday. Danny Smith might be fighting for his job against the Chiefs. If this area falters again, there could be a new coach in 2017.

About the Author

Alex Kozora

Full-time blogger from mom’s basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    I am genuinely curious Alex because I can’t tell given the pun/joke start to this. Were you serious or joking when you said the Toussaint injury stresses our return situation?

    I ask because if anything his injury only helps by forcing Tomlins hand to make a move so if anything, relief might be the proper term here.

  • David lewis

    Looks like danny smith days are numbered in which they should be. TERRIBLE SPECIAL TEAMS PLAY FOR THE LAST 4 OR 5 YEARS. I find my self everytime we kick off sitting and praying nobody runs one back on us.

  • StolenUpVotes

    Alex, are you going to be sad if your best friend is not on the practice field chomping a whole stick of gum at once come this summer? lol

  • Daniel

    Nice for MT to blast special teams maybe they come up big this week

  • SwagDaddy330


  • stan

    I want to know what happened to the plan on having Rogers return punts. Now that Ayers is going to be on the gameday roster too, he also could do that job. I don’t like AB being back there at all due to the possibility of injury and his diminishing returns (pun intended).

  • StolenUpVotes

    Then someone needs to step up. I am all for getting AB off that unit, but if he is that much better than the next guy then he has to be the one fielding punts

  • Mrs Bighead

    No more high kicks that don’t go into the endzone. Miami got gift field goals because we didn’t force touchbacks

  • Mrs Bighead

    Tyreek Hill should not field a punt Sunday. Out of bounds all day

  • LucasY59

    DHB could be Secondary returner (since he is a good blocker) he isnt really a returner, but he can run it up to the 20 just as well as Touissaint could

    I think Sammie should slide over to the Secondary spot and have Ayers (or Gilbert) as the Primary guy, but since they dont switch things up very often it is more likely that Hamilton will be back there

  • LucasY59

    the coverage units actually improved under Smith, but now I think it was more due to personnel (Guys like Ross Ventrone and other specific ST guys getting roster spots)

  • LucasY59

    they will need to, KC has good STs and it could be the difference in winning or losing

  • LucasY59

    I agree with everything except AB, I would still put him back there in crucial situations (his experience and the possibility of him making a big play are greater than the risk IMO) I think Rogers or Ayers should be returning the routine punts (and as they gain experience they could possibly permanently replace AB)

  • Alex Kozora

    Stresses it in the sense that it may force the team to make a change. And who knows, any ramifications that come from that. Toussaint’s injury also definitely stresses the punt coverage situation.

  • Alex Kozora

    My notebook will be riddled with tears.

  • StolenUpVotes

    Haha. You will have to chew a stick of gum at camp in memory of his tenure.

  • george


  • Rocksolid20

    No rookie will be given that responsability .

  • Paul Rainey

    Can’t be injuries,”The standard is the standard”, “next man up” and all the other cliches he uses which he obviously doesn’t believe. How about the special teams coach is the worst in the league? How about he is not a very good coach let alone a great one? This isn’t a one year problem it is a multi year problem that he can’t fix. How about the linebacker rotation that never worked? He makes more mistakes than most head coaches.

  • falconsaftey43

    You’re right. Just think if he didn’t make mistakes, they’d be 16-0 every year.

  • Steel Tippin

    If Gilbert dresses and doesn’t return a kick I’m gonna go mad.

  • gdeuce

    I think that was because of the wind, when we flipped sides in the 2nd qtr, all the kicks went into the endzone

  • Mrs Bighead

    Was wondering. I thought maybe it was strategic but I didn’t factor in wind

  • nitch19

    I would say with relative certainty, there will be a new ST coach next season.

  • Douglas Andrews

    They bottled him up in the first game. Since then he’s been on a tear. I’m with you on punting out of bounds hell I’d even be okay with a JV punt out of bounds just don’t kick it to him!

  • DirtDawg1964

    More mistakes than most? Please. He makes mistakes. But not more than most. Clock management is an issue at times, getting teams prepped for poor teams has been an issue, special teams have generally been poor, and he can make some head scratching decisions like leaving Ben in (or having him throw, which he acknowledged). But he has also won 102 games in 10 years. Only 40 coaches have ever won 100 games in the entirety of their careers. He’s been to the playoffs 7 times and won a division title 5 times in a hotly contested division. That makes him better than most coaches by default.

    And if you say it’s the talent, well who has a role in choosing that talent? And then coaching them?

  • Steeler-Drew

    Not getting my hopes up but Tomlin actually hinted there may be a change at kick returner this week. It sounded like either Ayers or Gilbert was a possibility. When asked about Gilbert, he basically said he was not an option this past week with the shoulder injury. Time to pull out all stops. We can’t afford to keep starting inside of our 20 against a good defense on the road. It’s only a matter of time before field position comes back to bite you.

  • Kevin artis

    Tell the defense to watch for the jet sweep.

  • Bradys_Dad

    In a game like this, any returner who brings one out from 3 yards deep should lose his helmet. Maybe some of these guys were bad at math but even in elementary school they teach you that 20 > 17. Just sayin.

  • Bradys_Dad

    And I’d be able dunk at 5′ 7″. LOL

  • Slab

    25 > 20 > 17

  • Bradys_Dad

    That too – good catch.

  • Getitout

    Eh. I expect better from you.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    I still see it as relief lol. At least as far as KR goes. Toussaint has been awful so it can’t really get much worse.

  • Ahmad

    I think all of this talk of Danny Smith losing his job is just overboard. The man has been a decent special teams coach during his tenure here, with his unit being an above average one until midway through this season.

    Since mid-season, yes special teams has been below average to downright putrid. However, to fire a guy over a half season of poor play when he has shown he can have an above average unit, it’s overkill people!!!

    I don’t like seeing us suffer on special teams either but we got to realize we lost our best special reamers due to injury this year, whether for the year or for games at a time.

    In all, I don’t think Danny Smith deserves to be fired and as far as I’m concerned, he’s not even on the hot seat.

  • Brendon Glad

    Shoot, I’ve been disoriented into thinking that this Steelers ST unit is in the top tier of my 45 year list. I guess that says something about the other 44 years.
    I just know I scream at my TV a lot less during ST plays than most years.
    1972, 76, 93, 01, 02, 09, 11, and 15 (and that’s off the top of my head in 2 min) had the Spec-Teams DIRECTLY responsible for ruining the season. So time will tell, I guess.
    15 was under Smith…and they were horrible against Denver…so a game lost on ST will not help his case. For the record, I’m pretty sure that about 100 of us (including me) could get called off the streets and be above par for the 45 years of Steelers ST that I’ve lived through.
    I’ve got this squad, so far, in my top 10. They haven’t ruined games yet. That’s a big deal in Steelers Nation when talking about ST.

  • Paddy

    Smith has been fired so many times he fails to show up on the sidelines for fear of being led off the field

  • Brendon Glad

    I want to see a lane open that is blatantly missed, before I start dissing the returners. I don’t get the Madden view when I watch games, so I say this without extreme force, but to me, over 45 years, the returner back on Kickoff and Punt Returns is about as far down the list of problems that one can go when looking at problems.
    All you need to do is look at how it goes for AB on PR for the most part. The PR blocking unit has a remarkable way of making AB look far less explosive than he is. And the Kickoff Return blocking is even worse.

    But as I complain to make my point, I want to reiterate that I have this Steelers ST in my top 10 of all 45 years of my Steelers fandom so far. So I think Smith is markedly better than any other ST coach Tomlin has hired.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    Other teams clearly know this. Have seen the backs try different things like flip flopping the side Toussaint is on with Coates or they will stay huddled together just before the kick then spilt the end zone – almost every time the kicker directs the ball to whichever side Toussaint is on.

  • Orlysteel

    Everytime they kick the ball off I get an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

  • ThatGuy

    Me too!

  • Mark

    I actually think Danny and JPeazy are gone after this year. Danny especially

  • Garrett Hunt

    I really want to know if it is Danny Smith’s decision or Mike T’s decision on who the return men are. Every return man should be explosive if nothing else and that is not Toussaint’s game.

    I under stand ball security is not an optional skill for a return man, but to me that really comes down to coaching.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    Justin Gilbert takes one to the house this Sunday and saves Danny’s job. Book it.

  • nutty32

    Bobby April is the only ST coach not given a tough time by Steeler Nation. Unfortunately for Bobby, Cowher fired him after taking credit for Bobby’s surprise onside call in the ’95 Super Bowl (Cowher was mic’d up & it clearly shows April suggesting the play, but Cowher took all the credit after the game).

  • SouthernSteel

    Lack of depth..plus lots of injuries have really but a hurting on ST..when u draft at end of rounds year after year then lose a few draft picks it really shows up…I can’t blame the coach for this

  • He hasn’t muffed a kick yet, so it could get worse.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    Danny will be gone if we lose and the Chiefs ST unit makes big plays…it will make things a lot easier to fire him as the scapegoat.

  • SkoolHouseRoxx

    This is going to be one of those games where we could use a special teams TD of some kind! Also wouldn’t hurt to get some decent yardage on punts and kick returns.

  • Kick them out of bounds unless the drive stalls near mid field. Then you kick them for the hang time and force the fair catch inside the 20. If he has guys around him, maybe, just maybe, he cracks under pressure and drops one. After all he is a rookie playing in his first playoff game.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    The ST unit as a whole has actually been good under Smith as I feel the Kicker, Punter, Punt Returner, Kick Coverage and Punt Coverage has been better since he came as only the Kick Returner has not improved ,however, most everything I have mentioned has either stayed status quo or gotten worse this year to the effect where we are giving up big plays every week.

  • Lots of teamers have been on the injury report, seems fair.

  • I’m not even willing to bet Gilbert gets a helmet, lol.

  • dennisdoubleday

    We have a serious KO return scheming issue, because our “off-man” is returning about 2/3 of the returnable kicks. It’s like the other team knows…..or something.

  • Paul Rainey

    What flavor is the kool aid? If he is so good why hasn’t he fixed special teams in all these years? Why do we lose to less than mediocre teams every year?

  • Phil Brenneman II

    I know I keep saying it but I go back to a point David Todd made before about grading process as much as results. You are absolutely correct that it is far down the list of problems and almost irrelevant because we are on a 7 game win streak or whatever it is now.

    However, the returners consistently not kneeling and costing us 10-15 yards can quickly become a major issue. KC has a good defense and every yard counts. We can be backed up at the 10 or start at the 25 all with 1 bad decision that should be a very easy decision.

    I am not so much concerned with how they do on returns they have to take back. As you say, there is blocking to consider and it is a tough job. My big concern is that they can’t even figure out to kneel the ball down. Secondary is finding better actual returners.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    I would say returning touchbacks and costing us yards could be defined as muffing.

  • Jaybird

    You hate to say an injury is a blessing but it might be a good thing to see someone else other than Fitz.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    Yep. I was actually thinking about that as I typed it earlier. You don’t root for a guy to get injured, but I don’t think it is bad to view an injury as good for the team if you will.

    Just think back to Porter going down. He was a beast and I am sure nobody wanted him hurt, but that paved the way for James Harrison.

  • Jaybird

    I would be pleasantly surprised if he used Gilbert in the return game. I would be surprised if Gilbert even plays.

  • Steeler-Drew

    Same here. I think Ayers actually has a better chance of returning kicks. He just needs to pull the trigger and make the change. Any combination of Coates, Hamilton, or Toussiant pretty much guarantees starting inside the 20 yard line.

  • Except they don’t result in a turn over and giving the other team the ball in the redzone where muffing the kick of fumbling would.

  • srdan

    The NFL wants any given Sunday. What is a mediocre team they lost to this year?

  • Dshoff

    Well, then you’re gonna go mad because Boykin, I mean Gilbert isn’t gonna be returning kicks. They’ll put Hamilton or Ayers back there before Gilbert. It’s like they don’t know that Gilbert was a PROVEN good kick returner in Cleveland.

  • Dshoff

    Alex, we should certainly punt the ball out of bounds. Better to lose 5-10 yards per punt than to risk 7 points. Our special teams is not doing real well right now so watch us try to be “macho” and punt it to him.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    Very true, but we know Gilbert and Hamilton have done it successfully anyway.

    Regardless, Toussaint is bad back there. Ill take a chance with fumbles if we get someone smarter back there.

  • DirtDawg1964

    Why did we make the playoffs seven of the last ten years? Why did we win the division five of those years? Why have we gone to two Super Bowls and won one? Why have we won 102 regular season games in that time?

    I didn’t say he was perfect or immune from criticism and I have criticized him plenty. But yeah, I am drinking the kool-aid. Largely because outside of Belichick I’m not sure who would be a better coach.

    Tomlin is a far better coach than his detractors make him out to be. I get he needs to improve the special teams. But fire him over it? Ridiculous. I’m guessing you believe in the Haslam or Peluga school of sports management.

  • steelmann58

    if they lose this game due to ST say bye Danny

  • the standard is the standard. KOs and KRs should not amount to rocket science, and I feel that’s what Danny is trying to accomplish sometimes. We like, NEVER, have explosive plays on returns. And I cringe every time Boswell kicks it off, waiting for the big return. This week will be a good test, If his unit’s perform (Returns and Return coverage)I will stop dogging him, until the next time I see something that boggles the mind

  • I.P. Freeley

    What about kickoffs? Bos has been BAD in that regard. I love Bos, but dude needs to step up his kickoff game significantly.

  • I.P. Freeley

    This is the phase of the game where KC has a HUGE advantage. We can’t let Devin Hester, I mean Hill kill us and flip the field all day. That won’t work if we hope to win. C’mon Danny, time to step up, now or never!

  • I.P. Freeley

    He will, Fitz is in concussion protocol, and Tomlin alluded to
    Gilbert contributing this week in his presser.

  • Brendon Glad

    That is a great point, Phil. I probably was letting history get in the way of this actual season, and this article.
    And even if everything I complained about is correct, STILL your beef is legit…because a Returner should understand that the ST blocking is almost never good. So end-zone kneel-down should usually be the overwhelming “best choice”.