What's so 'special' about special teams? Ask these guys
There's a lot that goes into the dozen special teams plays that take place each week in an NFL game
By Dale Lolley  Dec 07, 2022

No young football players grow up saying they want to be special teams players – with the exception of perhaps kickers or punters.

You don't see any special teams players whose jerseys are among a team's top-10 biggest sellers.

But that doesn't mean special teams players, especially core special teams players, aren't important to an NFL team.

Look at the Steelers' recent game against the the Colts as an example. Missing core special teams players such as Robert Spillane, Miles Boykin, Jaylen Warren and placekicker Chris Boswell because of injuries, the Steelers gave up an 89-yard kickoff return to open the second half, helping the Colts turn a 16-3 halftime deficit into a 17-16 lead. The Steelers rallied to get the win, but it drove home the importance of strong special teams play.

The following week against the Falcons, the special teams units were a major contributing factor to the team's 19-16 win, holding the league's top punt and kick return units in check and downing a punt at the 2-yard line with under one minute to play.

Special teams is more than just taking the bottom 11 players on a roster and putting them on the field in any old fashion. There's an art of building a special teams unit – at least a good one.

And it's something the Steelers take quite seriously, typically keeping four or five players on their roster for their contributions on special teams.

There's a lot that goes into planning each week for the 12 or so special teams plays that take place in each NFL game.

After all, unlike simply playing offense and defense, there are several different duties that special teams units must be prepared to perform each week – punt return, punt coverage, kickoff return, kickoff coverage, hands team and field goal and PAT. And they all take time and effort to prepare each week given a specific opponent.


Danny Smith has been coaching football since 1976 when he began what would turn into a lifetime career when he accepted a position as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Edinboro University.

He's held a number of different coaching positions during his career across college football and then the NFL, including coaching running backs, wide receivers and defensive backs. But the majority of his career has been spent coordinating special teams, the position he has held with the Steelers since 2013.

Smith, now in his 27th year of coaching in the NFL, puts countless hours in each week looking for weaknesses not just in opposing special teams units, but his own, as well. Better to nip an issue in the bud before something bad happens in a game.

And unlike other position coaches or coordinators, things on special teams can change quickly. Witness, for example, the machinations Smith had to go through when safety Minkah Fitzpatrick was forced to miss a game against the New Orleans Saints Nov. 13 when he had an appendectomy the day before the game.

The move for the Steelers defense was to simply move Fitzpatrick's backup, Damontae Kazee, into the defensive packages. 

For Smith, it meant more than simply replacing Fitzpatrick with one person.

"We lose Minkah prior to the game. Minkah does some things for me. I replaced him with three guys," Smith said. "Minkah texted me Sunday morning and said, 'Who you got in for me?' I texted him back, 'It takes three guys to replace you. I'm going to put this guy on (the hands team), this guy on field goal block, and this guy on defense stay (on the field for a potential fake or short kick). It took three guys to replace him. That's how hard it is."

And that's for a safety who plays on just a few of the team's different packages. It's much more challenging when a kicker, punter or long-snapper comes up lame late in the week.

The Steelers had just such an issue earlier this season when Boswell popped up on the injury report on a Friday with a groin injury. The team quickly got Nick Sciba, who had been with the Steelers in training camp, to town and ready to go for that Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Then, Matthew Wright, who had been with the team in training camp in 2021, was signed off the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs the next week to replace Boswell, who wound going on the Reserve/Injured List.

"It's very stressful on Friday. Injuries happen and you've got to be prepared for them. I get that. But when they come on Friday, I don't like that," Smith said. "I'm waiting for Nick on a Friday night. I've got to meet with the guy, we've got a game on Sunday. We've got a walk-through the next day.

"I've made mistakes. You bring him in on Friday and you practice his butt off because you don't know him real good. Wait a minute, he's got a game on Sunday. I've done it wrong in previous times."

One thing Smith doesn't do wrong is properly prepare his players for what lies ahead.

He makes a tape of every special teams snap the opponent has run that season that he sends to his players on Tuesday night. It's called the "Saturday Night Tape," but players are expected to watch it several times over the course of the week.

"Every Tuesday, I make a very comprehensive tape for them. The tape is broken down in all of those six (special teams) categories," Smith said. "I send it out to them Tuesday nights. They're to look at it before we start meeting on Wednesdays. We really zero in on it Saturday night before the game. … It's a great preparation. Now, you've got to do your part as a player. Some do, some don't."

Those who don't might find themselves out of a job. So, they had better take it seriously.

"I love film. I'm a film junky. I watch every play of every game," Smith said. "As the season goes on, it gets longer and longer, but I like it. When I meet with those guys, our meetings are good. I make them meet on Saturday morning by themselves.

"So, 30 minutes before my meeting, they're by themselves and they talk through things. When get there, they'll say, 'What about this?' I'll say what we want and those kind of things. We've got smart guys, and they're good workers. The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack. I will see every play of every game, preseason, everything. If they show something new that our players have not seen, it's because they haven't showed it."


It might sound like a lot, but NFL teams are limited to three full practices in most game weeks. Smith gets a couple short portions each practice to work with his units. All told, it's probably not enough for new or younger players to get up to speed.

So the tape Smith puts out each week is vital. But so is having some core veteran special teams players on which he can count.

"It's critical," Smith said. "They teach the young guys. They're critical. I couldn't do it without them."

For the Steelers this season, that group includes Spillane, Boykin, fullback Derek Watt, safety Miles Killebrew, running back Benny Snell and linebacker Marcus Allen, among others.

They're valuable backups at their respective positions – or in the case of Watt, are considered a starter – but their main job on the team is to play special teams.

And they take their role very seriously.

Cornerbacks and wide receivers study each other's tendencies on film to try to gain an advantage. The same goes for quarterbacks, pass rushers or other positions.

Special teams players also have to do that film work in case they're called upon to play their regular position. But they also have to study for their main job.

"Countless hours," Killebrew said of how much special teams tape he watches. "I would probably say it's the reverse. I spend a lot of my time on special teams, and then I will supplement that with defense. We spend just as much time as a T.J. Watt would spend on defense.

"There's a lot of nuances in the game that maybe aren't noticed. Maybe fans go to the bathroom or go get some chips when special teams are up. But we have the ability to really impact the game just from a yardage and field position point of view. If you block a punt, 90-plus percent of the time, you win that game. It has the possibility to be a game-changing element of the game. That's something we take very seriously."

Killebrew is in his seventh NFL season. A fourth-round draft pick of the Detroit Lions in 2016, he's made just three career starts in 105 career games.

But like Watt, Snell and Allen, he's the glue of the Steelers' special teams units, so much so that his teammates voted him the unit's captain this season. That's why the Steelers signed him as a free agent in 2021.

Why not? Killebrew's two blocked punts last season led the NFL.

Those blocks didn't come by accident. Film study and refined technique gave him an advantage.

"That's something that takes a lot of patience. Just talking about blocking kicks, for example. We may only get a couple of punts per game," Killebrew said. "And even then, we might only have one rush. If I was on the defensive line, I would have a couple of chances every series to get a sack. But you have to be very patient."

It's almost like stalking your prey, waiting for the right moment to pounce.

But Killebrew is nothing if not patient. It's why the 29-year-old has been able to stick in the NFL for so long. Everyone wants to be a starter. Every player on every NFL roster was a star in college. But they can't all be starters in the NFL, so you'd better be valuable in other ways.

"I don't have to swallow any pride playing special teams," Killebrew said. "I think the guy sitting at home has to swallow his pride. I know a lot of first-round, second-round picks that aren't playing anymore that were picked after me, years after me. That's just the way of the business. I think the league averages around two years. For me to still be playing this game, it doesn't require me to swallow my pride at all."

He's still in the league and will continue to be – as long as he stays healthy and continues to be among the best at what he does.

There are plenty of examples of players having long and lucrative careers as special teams players. New England's Matthew Slater, for example, is in his 15th season and is considered one of the best special teams players of the past two decades. He's listed as a wide receiver on the Patriots' roster, but has one career reception.

There's little doubt Slater has made more money per reception than any player in NFL history.

But you'd better be really good at your job because there are always younger, and cheaper, players waiting to take your place.

"They're always looking to replace you no matter what you play," Killebrew said. "But I would say as a special teamer, it's something where I have to be able to produce. I have to be able to do my job, but I have to be able to do it exceedingly well, enough for them to say, 'Hey, we want to keep this guy around,' not just plug a rookie in there and see what he can do. So, it does take a certain level of professionalism I try to bring to the table every week."

That's important.

That's why Killebrew and others take the film work they do so seriously.

"He should. He plays more on special teams than he does on defense. It's not that hard to figure," Smith said of Killebrew's film habits. "I tell him, 'I want you to be the starting safety. I want to be the head coach. But I'm not the head coach and you aren't the starting safety. But we've got nice careers.'"


Second-year linebacker Jamir Jones hopes to have the kind of longevity in the NFL Killebrew now enjoys.

But like many young players, he hoped that would come based on his primary job, which in the case of Jones is as a pass rusher.

After being released in training camp by the Houston Texans in 2020, Jones spent the 2021 training camp with the Steelers and made the team's active roster early in the season. But he got caught up in a numbers game and was released when the Steelers needed to make a move at another position.

They had hoped to get him onto their practice squad, but he was claimed off waivers by the Los Angeles Rams, appearing in 10 games for the eventual Super Bowl champions. But Jones didn't get to enjoy that playoff run. He was released Dec. 25 and claimed off waivers by the Jaguars, who waived him in their final cut downs at the end of the preseason.

The Steelers brought him back and Jones has become a core special teams player for the team this season, ranking in the top 5 in special teams snaps played.

"I was very familiar with Danny Smith and the way he runs things," Jones said. "Obviously, being here last year helped a lot. When I came back, it felt normal again. It was perfect. I'm just looking to continue to show my contributions as much as I can and make plays."

He's still waiting for that first career regular season sack, but in the meantime, Jones will contribute however he can.

And right now, that's by being a core special teams player.

He takes his lead from the veterans who do it. And he attacks playing special teams the same way he attacks a blocker across from him when he's rushing the passer.

"Whipping the guy across from you, getting off blocks and getting to the ball. If you're around the ball, good things happen," Jones said. "Guys like Derek, Miles, Benny, they're always around the ball. Whether they make the tackle or not, they're always around the ball. That gives them an opportunity to make the play, to make the tackle. You have to get to the ball."

And make something happen

Special teams units might only get a dozen snaps per game. But they're important ones.

Mess something up, and it can lead to a disastrous result.

"Definitely. You can't get the snap back," Jones said. "You don't get any do-overs on special teams. You mess up and that's it. Whereas on offense and defense, you've got first down, second down and third down. We only get one down. You make it or you don't. It's very important. It's a fine line, a small margin of error."

As a defensive player, Jones did have a leg up on some of the other young players on the Steelers' roster.

He had done it at Notre Dame.

"I played a lot early. My freshman and sophomore year, I was playing a lot," Jones said. "Junior and senior year was kind of weird for me at Notre Dame because I was trying to get an extra year. I was trying to redshirt, so I wasn't really on special teams much."

And therein lies one of the major issues Smith has finding special teams players.

While some players did it early in their college careers, some didn't do it at all. Snell, for example, was a star running back at Kentucky as a freshman, so he wasn't asked to play special teams.

For others, they just don't want to do it, and there are enough other players on the college roster who are willing to play on special teams just to get on the field.

"That's become a hard part of the job. I tell the players this all the time, it's cool when you're in college not to go to the punt meeting. It's cool. I get it," Smith said. "In the pros, it's, 'If I don't make this punt team, I'm not making this team.'

"I understand why colleges do it and I'm not being critical of the coaches, they're trying to win, too. But it puts a lot of these guys at a disadvantage. So we do look at it, and it's hard to find. Guys who have not done it, there's a great number of them. Guys that have done it, did it as a freshman and haven't done it in the last three years. It's really hard. But it's my job to coach and teach them the fundamentals and get them going."


Fortunately for rookie tight end Connor Heyward, he was at a school that valued special teams and didn't mind putting star players on those units.

So, while Heyward wasn't a core special teams player at Michigan State, he did see time on different units, even in his final season with the Spartans before the Steelers selected him in the sixth round of this year's draft."Punt and kick return in college," Heyward said of what he was asked to do in his final season in college. "At Michigan State they made it a big emphasis and talked about it. Ross Els, our special teams coach, showed us guys they had in the past at Colorado and Georgia, places they had been, that carved a niche and a role in the special teams game. They got us to take it seriously. We won games on special teams last year. As you buy into it, you start to see how it can be a game-changer, a momentum-changer.

So, it wasn't necessarily a stretch for Heyward to become a core special teams player as a rookie for the Steelers – except for the whole tackling aspect of things. Even so, he's on all six of the Steelers' units.

Heyward played running back, wide receiver and tight end at Michigan State. But he hadn't played defense since high school.

That was one reason the Steelers spent time in OTAs and minicamp having their potential special teamers who happened to be offensive players working with linebackers coach/senior defensive assistant Brian Flores on tackling fundamentals.

"Whatever I can do to help the team win," Flores said when asked about it earlier this year.

For players such as Heyward, those lessons were time well spent. In fact, it was Heyward's tackle against the Colts that kept that 89-yard return from being a 100-plus-yard touchdown as he chased the play down from behind.

"I played defense growing up and offense, going both ways. So naturally, I know how to tackle," Hayward said. "We spend time tackling the dummies, whatever we can do to simulate a live tackle."

And like Killebrew, he watches that Saturday Night Tape religiously – as well as other tape.

"I probably watch the Saturday night tape three times throughout the week," Heyward said. "I watch it Wednesday and Thursday. And Saturday night before the game, then I go out there and play. I also watch a lot of our practice tape because things like punt protection, (Smith) is showing us all the things they're doing. They might not do it. It might be stuff we haven't gotten beat on, but it's stuff he sees flaws in. I watch more of our tape than others because I feel like he does a good job of preparing us."

Watching the veterans and how they approach things also helps. Heyward has a similar skillset to that of Watt, a seven-year veteran. They do some of the same things on the team's offense in terms of being asked to block.

Heyward takes his cues from the older players on those units.

"For sure. He's a really good special teamer," Heyward said of Watt. "I see him doing that and then getting into his packages on offense. Him, Marcus Allen, you can go down the line in this locker room and see how big that play is. Seeing how seriously they take it makes me want to take it more seriously and rise to the occasion."

• Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast


It's all about finding your niche and embracing your role, no matter what it might be.

Special teams play isn't for everyone. It's not a unit on which a team can hide a player.

Running full speed at another player who is running full speed at you isn't necessarily a natural act.

"It's guys out there with a little grit, a little chip on their shoulders," Heyward said. "You've got to play full speed out there. If not, they'll find you."

It's one big reason why when Smith finds or helps mold a player into being a good special teams player, he's willing to stick up for that guy when it comes time for cut downs each year.

It doesn't mean he always gets his way, but Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin takes his team's special teams play very seriously.

You can bet that when things are close between two players, the Steelers are keeping the guy who will be valuable on teams.

"When I stand on the table for guys, we get it here. I've been in programs where it isn't important," Smith said. "Here it is important. I say my piece. And then the powers that be are going to make those decisions. I say it strongly. Sometimes, I said it strongly enough and other times, I didn't at the end of the day. I make those suggestions. They make those decisions."

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