As we start to turn more of our attention to the Pittsburgh Steelers upcoming Divisional Playoff game against the Kansas City Chiefs, most of us are probably already worrying quite a bit about their fabulous rookie wide receiver Tyreek Hill as the West Alabama product enters the postseason having caught 61 passes for 593 yards and 6 touchdowns during the regular season. While Hill’s 2016 receiving stats might be enough to worry about, the fact that he’s quickly established as one on the league’s top return specialists is even scarier and especially when it comes to the Steelers and how they’ve played so far this season on special teams.
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin talked about Hill during his weekly Tuesday press conference.
“Hill’s contributions to this team has evolved since we played them,” Tomlin started. “The last time we played them, we talked about his dynamics in the return game, be it punts and kicks, and the fact that he was kind of a gadget guy on offense. Now, he is very much a part of their routine offensive attack. He plays wide receiver, he plays running back, he is an impactful guy. His speed and bursts are unique. He needs no endorsement from me. His splash play reel is all the endorsement that he needs.”
During the regular season, Hill’s 15.7 punt return average led the league as he returned 39 punts for 592 yards and 2 touchdowns. While he didn’t have enough kickoff returns to qualify, Hill’s 27.4 yard average per return would have been the third-best in the league this season. Oh, and one of those 14 kickoffs that he returned went for 86 yards and a touchdown.
Because Hill is such a dangerous returner, Tomlin was asked Tuesday how he plans to go about handling him on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
“Very thoughtfully. And it’s easier said than done,” Tomlin said. “You saw what trying to directional kick did to us a couple weeks ago. We put the ball out of bounds twice. We gave them the ball on the 40 [yard line]. So, we have to tread lightly as we prepare and understand that our ability to minimize his touches in that area aides us, but we don’t want to give them anything. And we gave our opponent some field position a couple weeks ago by kicking the ball out of bounds a couple of times. Not interested in that.”
While Hill has been solid most of the season when it comes to him returning both punts and kickoffs, Tomlin was quick to point out that he’s surrounded by a solid and well-coached special teams unit.
“Taking nothing away from Tyreek Hill, he’s dynamic, but you have to acknowledge as a special teams group they [the Chiefs] are dynamic,” Tomlin said. “They were dynamic when they had Black Mamba (De’Anthony Thomas) back there returning kicks. Their special teams coordinator [Dave Toub] is interviewing for head coaching jobs. They’ll let you know how dynamic they are as a special teams group. So, it’s not a one-man gang, that one-man gang being Tyreek Hill. We respect their special teams group, and it’s been a catalyst for them. And that’s one of the reasons, significant reasons, why they are a 12-4 outfit.”
You probably don’t need me to remind you just how bad the Steelers punt and kickoff coverage units have been this season, but in case you do, here are the numbers. The Steelers punt coverage team allowed an average of 9.6 yards per return and only six other NFL teams had a higher number. As for kickoffs, the Steelers coverage unit allowed an average of 24.7 yards per return and only the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings were worse when it comes to that stat.
The Steelers coverage units have been without the services of several key players for most of the season as not only did lose perhaps their two best players for the season due to injuries in linebacker Steven Johnson and safety Shamarko Thomas, wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey also sat out six regular season games with a foot injury. If that’s not enough, core special team players, linebackers Anthony Chickillo (ankle) and Vince Williams (shoulder) are both currently dealing with injuries as well.
When given the opportunity to kickoff Sunday against the Chiefs, hopefully weather conditions will allow Steelers kicker Chris Boswell the opportunity to kick the football out of the back of end zone to prevent Hill from fielding it. As for Steelers punter Jordan Berry, here’s to hoping his directional kicking game is on point Sunday in addition to him not having to see the field very much.
Hill is certainly a huge x-factor for the Chiefs heading into Sunday’s game both as a wide receiver and return-man. When the Steelers and Chiefs played each other back in Week 4, Hill had 5 receptions for 24 yards and a touchdown in the passing game in addition to one rush for -2 yards. He also returned two punts for 20 yards with a long of 14 yards and returned two kickoffs for 54 yards with a long of 33 yards. In short, the Steelers didn’t allow Hill to make any game-changing plays the last time they played the Chiefs and now they have to make sure to repeat that performance once more on Sunday. It will be a tough task for sure and certainly one worth worrying about if you’re a fan of the team.