PRE-CAMP ANALYSIS: Special teams


This is another in a series examining the Steelers' roster on a position-by-position basis as we count down the days to the opening of the team's 2015 training camp at Saint Vincent College.

There is no competition for Shaun Suisham to be the placekicker, nor should there be. A perfect fit for the Steelers in terms of temperament, Suisham is awfully reliable and under contract through the 2018 season, both of which qualify to be listed under the category of good news. In the three seasons from 2012-14, Suisham was 56-for-58 (96.6 percent) between 30-49 yards, which is the distance where NFL coaches need to be confident in coming away with three points at the least. He's also not intimidated by Heinz Field, which has been a problem for others who preceded him.

Check out photos of Steelers specialists who are competing for a roster spot heading into the 2015 training camp.

There also is no competition for Greg Warren as the long-snapper, nor should there be. Warren has been operating on year-by-year contracts now for some time, and a sign of what the team thinks of him could be found in the fact he signed his deal for 2015 on Feb. 4. His first season with the team was in 2005, and Warren has been the team's long-snapper ever since, with the exception of the parts of 2008 and 2009 he missed because of torn knee ligaments. When healthy, he has been a consistent and reliable snapper, and as long as he's those things, the one-year contracts figure to keep coming.

There will be two punters at training camp – Brad Wing and Jordan Berry – but it remains to be seen how much competition Berry is able to provide. It's quite possible that Wing ultimately will be competing with the waiver wire.

Wing's 43.7 gross average was 29th in the NFL and his 38.8 net was 20th – but one of the things Coach Mike Tomlin said last year about his then-rookie punter was that Wing showed an ability to bounce back quickly from whatever mistakes he might make. Tomlin expects big improvement in players as they transform from rookies into second-year players, and Wing will get a chance to live up to that. There also is the matter of holding for Suisham, and if Wing is the better man there, that will weigh heavily in his favor.

Berry replaced Richie Leone as the second punter on the Steelers offseason roster, and while his big leg was enough of a difference-maker during the offseason program, his high level of inexperience in the nuances the job demands at the NFL level is something he'll have to find a way to overcome. Berry will get opportunities to show off his leg and to work on the art of directional punting, etc. And since most NFL offseason roster contain a couple of punters, the market will be flooded once cuts start to be made, there always is the possibility looming that the winner of Wing vs. Berry isn't necessarily the punter in New England on Sept. 10.

As for the rest of the special teams, the reality is that while fans have a tendency to overlook this phase of the game while following training camp and predicting the final cuts, the coaching staff does not. And by keeping guys on the final roster based on making quality plays on special teams as late as the preseason finale, Tomlin has shown he means what he says about the importance of special teams, and that commitment is what special teams coordinator Danny Smith (pictured above) will be stressing throughout the training camp process.

It's fair to point out that four roster spots were awarded at the start of the 2014 season based primarily on special teams, and those spots went to Darius Heyward-Bey, Michael Palmer, Terence Garvin, and Robert Golden. Midway through the season, Ross Ventrone was activated from the practice squad, and after making two special teams tackles in each of his first two games he stuck for the rest of the season.

Four of those aforementioned five players will be in Latrobe for the start of this training camp, and because they have experience – both in the art of playing special teams and in understanding how important that phase of the game is to their livelihood – they understand how to make themselves difficult to replace. Some of the other productive special teams players in 2014 were Vince Williams, Antwon Blake, Will Allen, and Will Allen. All of them will be in Latrobe in late July as well.

Also up for grabs could be the jobs of punt returner and kickoff returner. Antonio Brown has returned punts for touchdowns in each of the previous two seasons, and he has three for his career, but there usually comes a time when an All-Pro receiver with returning skills gives up those returning skills. Maybe this is the season for Brown, but maybe not.

Kickoff returns in 2014 were supposed to be handled by Dri Archer, but he was so ineffective he was benched and the job given to Markus Wheaton, whose 24.7 average on 20 returns represented a dramatic improvement by comparison. If Archer is to have a future with the Steelers, it seemingly will have to include returning kicks. Other candidates, based on repetitions during OTAs and minicamp, figure to be Shakim Phillips, Eli Rogers, Ross Scheuerman, and maybe some others.

In the end, there will be players who earn a spot on the roster because they can contribute on special teams, and there will be players who are cut because they didn't.

TOMORROW: Defensive line

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