Final in an offseason series breaking down the Steelers:
There were plenty of reasons for the Steelers missing the playoffs last season for the first time since 2013. The defense let the team down late in the season when the Los Angeles Chargers, Oakland Raiders and New Orleans Saints came back and scored late to secure victories. The offense didn’t help matters by turning the ball over 26 times, many at inopportune moments that contributed to the late-season collapse.
No one would be wrong when citing these facts. It’s just that the 9-6-1 season also can be boiled down one other way: Place-kicker Chris Boswell went from very good to very bad in the span of a few months.
When the Steelers were 13-3 and the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs in 2017, Boswell made 92 percent of his field-goal attempts, including four game-winners in the final seconds of games against the Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals and Baltimore Ravens.
Last season, Boswell converted just 65 percent of his attempts and missed several field goals in crucial spots that could have helped the Steelers win games.
To borrow an old line from Bill Cowher: “There’s a fine line between winning and losing football games.”
The Steelers found that out the hard way.
Things got so bad for Boswell that there was an in-season kicking competition and then a late-season injury that forced the Steelers to sign Matt McGrane, who kicked the game-winning field goal in the regular-season finale against the Bengals.
The kicking competition was mostly for show because the Steelers were not going to cut Boswell four months after making him one of the highest-paid kickers in the league. Boswell signed a four-year, $16.8 million deal that paid him $7.3 million in guaranteed money.
The Steelers are hoping Boswell can regain his previous form in 2019 because if he’s not on the team, he’ll still count $6.8 million against the salary cap. After taking on more than $21 million in a dead cap hit on Antonio Brown, it’s something the Steelers desperately want to avoid with Boswell, who had developed a reputation for being one of the best kickers in clutch moments in the NFL since entering the league in 2015.
There wasn’t much to celebrate for any of the special teams in 2018. Punter Jordan Berry ranked near the bottom of the league in average and net average. He was among the top 10 in the league in pinning opponents inside the 20-yard line but rarely had the ability to pin teams inside the 10.
The Steelers signed Berry last month, but they’ll likely bring in some competition this summer to push him in training camp. With 10 picks in the draft next month, it’s not out of the question for the Steelers to use one of them on a punter in the late rounds.
The punt-coverage unit didn’t help Berry, or vice versa. The Steelers finished last in the NFL in punt return yards allowed with a 14.4 yards-per-return average. They allowed three yards per return more than any other team in the NFL. Detroit was second-to-last with an 11.4 average. The inability to cover punts was especially costly when the unit allowed a 73-yard touchdown on a punt return against the Chargers that contributed to the Steelers blowing a big lead.
The Steelers traded for receiver/return specialist Ryan Switzer just before last season began to help improve the punt and kick return game. Switzer was reliable in his role for the most part, but he finished a pedestrian 13th in the league in punt-return average (8.4) and last among kick returners (20.4) with at least 22 returns. His longest kick return was 35 yards and his longest punt return was just 23 yards.
Eli Rogers missed most of last season with a knee injury, but he has punt-return experience and should provide some competition for Switzer.
There was one piece of good news for the Steelers’ special teams. They covered kicks well. They were fifth in kickoff returns allowed (20.8) and did not allow a touchdown as coach Danny Smith was among those who figured out a way to benefit from the league’s new rules on kick returns.
Smith is back for his seventh season with the Steelers. He can only hope the rest of his units follow suit next fall.