2017 South Side Questions: Caution Using Starters On Special Teams?

The journey toward the Super Bowl is now well under way with the Pittsburgh Steelers back practicing at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, still informally referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility. With the regular season standing in their way on the path to a Lombardi, there will be questions for them to answer along the way.

We have asked and answered a lot of questions during the preseason and through training camp, but much of the answer-seeking ends in the regular season, and teams simply have to make do with what they have available to them. Still, there will always be questions for us.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the regular season and beyond as they develop, looking for the answers as we evaluate the makeup of the Steelers on their way back to the Super Bowl, after reaching the AFC Championship game last season for the first time in more than half a decade.

Question: Should the Steelers be more cautious in using starters on offense or defense on special teams?

I am probably one of the biggest advocates out there when it comes to arguing for the investment of resources in the quality of product on special teams. I’ve been known to champion players like Darrius Heyward-Bey, Shamarko Thomas, Curtis Brown, and Antwon Blake for their work in the third phase and argued that they deserved their roster spots because of it.

But I would probably think twice when it comes to using actual starters on special teams, outside of something like the field goal unit. The Steelers have finally taken Antonio Brown off of punt returns, which is something that I felt was worth strong consideration for years.

After T.J. Watt suffered a groin injury while covering a punt on Sunday, I think it’s inevitable to at least think about it.  The Steelers have been using players like Artie Burns and Joe Haden at times in the role of jammers on the punt return unit, and I would hate to see them go down playing in roles they hadn’t even been practicing for in the first place.

They have, for example, reduced the workload of Vince Williams significantly since they entered the starting lineup, though Mike Hilton, despite being the primary slot cornerback, has seen 15 snaps on special teams in each of the first two games.

There is a delicate balance here when it comes to figuring out how to use players on special teams who have big roles to play elsewhere, and I certainly am not going to be the one to argue for the idea that there is some guideline or standard to use in deciding who to use and when.

I just know that when an important player ends up suffering an injury on special teams, these are the kinds of discussion that inevitably arise.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • john bennett

    I would like the NFL to expand the roster and discontinue the inactive for game day specifically for special teams.

  • VaDave

    I don’t recall anybody saying anything about this during the 70s dynasty years, and they had blocking wedges back then.

  • john bennett

    Things were different then Dave. Speed , size , protection rules, make special teams a different animal in today’s game.

  • VaDave

    No doubt things were different then. But some things are the same. Did you see Rogers take a hit on that punt? LOL!! Swan, T Bell and Jimmy Smith used to take two, sometimes 3 of those a game. I hear you, but the reality is the amount of casualties per play is really not much more than other units in my estimation. Wear and tear, yep. Injury protection, not so much. I do like you idea about an expanded roster however.

  • Steeldog22

    +1 this. It doesn’t cost the owners any more money. I don’t know why they wouldn’t implement this.

  • falconsaftey43

    Let’s just look at the numbers to see if it’s practical. 46 active guys. Then remove all 22 starters. Then 1 backup QB, Harrison and the 3 specialists. That gets us to 19. 5 of those guys are OL/DL who have limited ST use outside of FG units, so that’s 14. So there you have it, 14 guys to fill out the 9 spots (snapper and kicker/punter are the other 2) needed for kick/punt coverage and return (kick return will sometimes have 1-2 big guys on it). It should be enough to not have to use starters, provided your backups are capable guys. But you are vulnerable to injury. It also reinforces how important it is for backups to play ST, why a guy like Hunter can’t get a hat. If you’re one of those 14 guys, they NEED you to be able to play ST.

  • falconsaftey43

    Studies have put the general injury risk (rate of any player getting injured per play) for the units in this order: Punt, Pass, Run, Kickoff. With kickoff being the most dangerous. (I imagine FG is likely among the safest). I’ll try to find the study so I can post the actual numbers, but it wasn’t a very significant difference from the safest to the most dangerous regardless.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Agreed on the inactive game day. I guess it’s good for guys like Dobbs Feiler and Hawkins because they get game day checks for being on the 53 but on the flip side unless there’s an injury at their respective positions they’ll never dress for a game.

  • VaDave

    Thanks for the follow up. I’m not a real stats geek, but as you said, if there is a difference, it can’t be much. On a battlefield, it doesn’t matter much when or where you are, sh*t happens.

  • Craig M

    Swan only called for 3 fair catches in his career as punt returner- had to look it up because I thought he never called for even one.

  • VaDave

    Hard to believe. Swanee was one heck of a punt returner. Of course I’m not so sure the league understood the concept of out kicking your coverage back then, or if they did, they weren’t as anal about it as they are today.

  • LucasY59

    tricky thing is with the 7 inactives there are only a certain amount of available players to take the ST snaps, I definitely think the depth guys should be the main contributors but there will be times where Starters have to play snaps (especially with some veteran guys like Deebo on the roster as well)

    I would like to see the roster expanded, I really think it should already be at 55 and eventually getting it to 60 would be a good idea, I also think the inactive list should be adjusted a little, make it more like baseball (im not that familiar with baseball, but from what I understand) they could kinda make IR and IR to return be less of a big deal (and let injured players return when they are ready instead of the 8 week/rest of the season stuff) have 5-10 spots for inactive/DL and still have 53 players dressed on Sunday, the subpackages and specialty players make it so only having 25 spots for O/D are not enough, the extra spots would really help (and help with player safety some…not needing them to rush back from injury as much/having extra depth to compensate)

  • LucasY59

    I posted a similar comment as well, there is a use for inactives, but it should be more like a less permanent (season ending) IR/developmental list, definitely need to expand rosters (and practice squads) keeping a total of 75 between the roster and PS would help, with at least 50-53 active on gameday

  • Terrible Towlie

    there’s no good reason every player on your team should not be able to play

  • john bennett

    And I watched and was amazed by some of those players getting up off the field after those hits. But that led to today’s CTE problems. A very different time and game.

  • VaDave

    I hear you about the CTE issue. From the first couple of weeks of action, it pretty obvious there are a fair amount of players that didn’t get the message.

    . And speaking of messages received, namely the collective raising of the social finger by the players and owners of the NFL pointed directly at us fans, that have bestowed upon them unbelievable wealth and status, I want to thank them sincerely for coming clean and telling us exactly what they think of us.

  • john bennett

    VaDave, I felt that way too when it all started[kap] but now I’m not as upset. I think the whole thing has been blown out of all proportion and politicized to the max. I am angry that people have done this and ruined what was once unthinkable for me to miss. Now, not so much. The world has changed in ways that I don’t agree with, and it will take a lot of younger people with sense to change it back. I didn’t put the word common in front of sense as it seems to be anything but now a days.