'We're making progress'

Whether it was a punt inside the 20-yard line, kickoffs and coverage that repeatedly pinned the Cardinals deep, three more field goals from Chris Boswell, or Diontae Johnson's 85-yard punt return for a touchdown, the Steelers' special teams were impactful and noticeable in Arizona.

Special teams coordinator Danny Smith wants even more from the kicking game this Sunday against Buffalo, not just more of the same.

"There's more meat on that bone, there really is," Smith assessed following practice today. "There's a lot of things week in and week out, and I challenge them with things they can do better. I challenge myself with things I can do better, putting us in situations, putting them in situations.

"We're playing well as a group and that's a good thing to see but there's a lot more meat on that bone in a lot of areas."

To Smith's point, there were also a couple of special teams issues in the Steelers' 23-17 victory in the desert, most notably a miscommunicated fake punt attempt that ended up turning the ball over at the Steelers' 32-yard line with the Steelers ahead, 20-10, and 8:04 remaining in the fourth quarter.

"There was a lot of confusion on the play and that's my fault, plain and simple," Smith said.

The Cardinals also successfully executed a fake punt and maintained possession in the third quarter.

But the rest of the Steelers' performance on special teams in Arizona was as encouraging as it was necessary.

Jordan Berry induced a fair catch at the Cardinals' 15, the 19th time he's pinned an opponent inside the 20 on a punt.

Boswell kickoffs that didn't produce touchbacks resulted in Cardinals drives starting at the Arizona 23-, 20- and 18-yard lines.

Boswell improved to 26-for-28 on field goal attempts for the season.

And Johnson's score on a punt return was the Steelers' first since Dec. 6, 2015.

"He's maturing, and I don't mean that in a negative sense, as a pro player," Smith said of Johnson. "He's a talented kid.

"He showed in Arizona he's a threat. Hopefully, we can keep that up."

Johnson has returned a team-leading 13 punts this season, 12 over the past five games.

His opportunities were rare over the season's first two months (Johnson had one punt return for 11 yards on Sept. 15 against Seattle), in part because of ball-security issues that Johnson has since worked through to the coaching staff's satisfaction.

Wide receiver Ryan Switzer was the primary punt and kickoff returner until landing on the reserve/injured list following the Steelers' 17-12 victory over the Rams on Nov. 10.

"(Johnson) wasn't as secure as we wanted him to be and it showed sometimes in a practice setting," Smith said. "Stuff like that, it does impede your progress a little bit. It affects you mentally, and you know when you're affected mentally in this game it affects your whole game.

"Right away he became a big part of the offense, and that's always a thing. You don't like that as a special teams coach but it is reality, and you gotta live with those things. It was a matter of just getting comfortable wth him and him getting comfortable in a dual role.

"We're making progress."

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