This is the first of a three-part position-by-position analysis of the Steelers as they are about to report to training camp at Saint Vincent College. Today's installment focuses on special teams:
Possibly a reflection of the confidence special teams coordinator Danny Smith has in Shaun Suisham, the Steelers will go to training camp with not even any token competition at placekicker. At long-snapper it will be veteran Greg Warren vs. first-year pro Bryce Davis, with the most interesting competition here to be between Adam Podlesh and Brad Wing for the job of punter.
Shaun Suisham was signed by the team in November 2010, and he struggled somewhat in 2011, which was his first full season with the Steelers. In 2011, Suisham was a sub-par 23-for-31 (74.2 percent) on all field goal attempts, with an even worse 63.2 percent (12-of-19) from 30-49 yards, which is the distance from which NFL kickers earn their money.
But since 2011, Suisham has been money. He converted 90.3 percent (28-of-31) of all field goal attempts in 2012, including a perfect 20-for-20 from 30-49 yards. Last season, he converted 93.8 percent (30-for-32), including 91.3 percent (21-of-23) from 30-49 yards. In addition, Suisham has become more accurate at Heinz Field over his seasons with the team, having made 71.4 percent of his attempts there in 2011, 87.5 percent in 2012, and 100 percent in 2013.
View photos of the Steelers' Special Teams before they head off to camp on July 25th.
As for Greg Warren, there rarely are issues with his snaps, and on those occasions when the team has had a kick blocked it typically has been because of protection issues. Warren has had a couple of ACL surgeries, though, and he will be 33 on Oct. 18.
Bryce Davis is making another try at a roster spot after bouncing around on the Cincinnati Bengals' practice squad in 2012 before being cut by that team in August 2013. Having a long-snapper who can line up at another position is an advantage when making up the game day roster, but the first time a coach needs to find a spot on the training camp roster because of a slew of injuries he usually looks at the second long-snapper.
At punter there will be an open competition. Again. This time it will be veteran Adam Podlesh vs. first-year player Brad Wing, which means the Steelers will go into a regular season with a different punter for the fourth straight season.
Podlesh is a seven-year veteran who has had stints with the Chicago Bears and Jacksonville Jaguars. He never has finished a season in which his gross average was more than 43.9 yards, and his best net was a 40.4 that was posted in 2011 with the Bears.
Wing is the young guy, born in Melbourne, Australia, with the type of big leg that can impact the outcome of a game. During his college career at LSU, Wing's punting was a significant factor in a 9-6 overtime win against Alabama, but he also became the first college player to be penalized under the new rule banning on-field taunting.
Maturity is going to be what decides this battle, and only part of that is the off-the-field kind. What NFL teams cannot have from a punter is a guy who's not situationally sound during a game. Directional punting, pooch punting, driving the ball when required – all of these are areas in which NFL coaches expect consistency and dependability. Podlesh vs. Wing will come down to those elements, more than sheer distance and height.
"Obviously, Dri Archer is going to be a big factor in that," said Danny Smith. "He has a lot to learn, a lot to work on, and he does and he will. His speed speaks for itself, but there will be a big pool of candidates, and again you can never have enough of those kind of guys. We tried out a lot of people (during the offseason program), and we'll filter that down as we get into camp and we get into preseason. We have more to choose from than we've had in the past. That's a great situation to be in."
Archer was a dynamic returner throughout his college career, and his speed already has been shown to be difference-making on a field of filled with NFL talent, but his experience has been with kickoffs. If Archer can use this training camp and the preseason to prove to Smith and Mike Tomlin that he is a reliable catcher of punts, the Steelers would be able to get maximum benefit from their rookie's open-field skills. But catching the ball is non-negotiable with Tomlin, who once sent James Harrison on a full-speed fly-by to test the mettle of a rookie named Antonio Brown back in the summer of 2010.
If not Archer, then things could get complicated. Brown is going into his fifth NFL season and has two Pro Bowl trips under his belt. There aren't too many receivers in the league with those credentials who still are returning punts. Not that Brown would refuse, but the Steelers would be better served to find/develop someone to take return duties off his plate so he could concentrate on the job of being the team's No. 1 receiver.
If it's neither Archer nor Brown returning punts, that would throw open the competition totally, with more than a half-dozen candidates with some potential to emerge as the best option. The simplest and cleanest outcome here would be for Archer to prove he can handle all of the return duties.
The addition of younger and faster legs that took place throughout this offseason should have a particular impact in this facet of the team. Typically, the players manning the coverage units are linebackers and defensive backs, and the Steelers will be bringing a lot of young ones to this training camp, with a lot of those young ones not assured of a roster spot on defense.
The situation at linebacker could really bear fruit here, with guys like Sean Spence, Chris Carter, Arthur Moats, Terence Garvin, Jordan Zumwalt, and Vince Williams among the notable names without a starting job. The defensive backs falling into the same category include Robert Golden, Will Allen, Brice McCain, Shamarko Thomas, Antwon Blake, and Shaquille Richardson.
In addition to those 11 players, there are likely a half-dozen more who could claw their way onto the 53-man roster by showing an aptitude for getting opposing returners on the ground.
To whom is this job most important? The answers to that question typically are revealed during a training camp and will go a long way toward determining who stays and who goes on Aug. 30.