The Ravens at Steelers special teams preview looks at the kickoff and punt coverage units, the return teams, plus the kickers and punters for both teams.
Sam Koch has spent all nine years of his NFL career as the Ravens punter. Like most pros at his position, Koch has seen a steady improvement in his gross distance through his twenties, boosting his average from 43.3 yards per kick over his first two years to 47.4 yards this season, the fourth-best mark in the league. Koch ranks in the upper echelon in terms of ball control, placing 43.3% of his kicks inside the 20-yard line and with only 6.7% resulting in touchbacks.
At first glance, generating fair catches appears to be an issue for Koch, as he only forces them on 23.3% of his kicks, below the league average of 27.4%. However, Koch is very skilled in directional punting, with the Ravens taking advantage of his ability to kick to the left side of the field. Koch consistently puts the ball between the left numbers and the sideline, as displayed against the Steelers this season:
Koch places the ball within five yards of the sideline, leaving little room for a return.
Later in the same game, he unleashes almost the exact same kick:
At first glance, they may even appear to be from the same play (full disclosure: I actually had to re-watch the footage to make sure they weren’t). But the difference in the official’s positioning on the goal line makes it clear that despite the incredible similarity, these are actually different punts. Even when kicking in the opposite direction while battling the swirling winds of Heinz Field, Koch still manages to place the ball with outstanding accuracy:
Once again, the ball is on the 15-yard line toward the punter’s left sideline. This bodes well for this weekend’s matchup in the same venue.
The Ravens punt operation also rates as one of the cleanest in the league, with no punts blocked in 2014. They consistently see snap-to-kick times in the 1.9-second range, with Koch generating between 4.2 and 4.4 seconds of hang time on a regular basis. The result? The best punt unit in the league, with a net average of 43.3 yards per kick. For the Ravens, this elite production could be a difference-maker in the playoffs.
However, Pittsburgh has a strong return game that should give fans a great matchup. Antonio Brown, the primary returner for the Steelers, puts his outstanding athleticism on display nearly every time he touches the ball. Brown averages 10.6 yards per return, eighth-best in the league and nearly two yards over the NFL average, and had one runback for a touchdown this year. While Brown still falls shy of the truly elite level displayed by Devin Hester in his prime, he serves as a valuable weapon in the field position battle.
The Steelers tend to employ left wall returns, allowing Brown to work to his right in many situations. Against the New York Jets, the Steelers utilized this as their primary strategy:
Indicated by the yellow blocking targets, Pittsburgh deploys blockers in position to allow Brown to cut towards open space on the right. Unfortunately the kick went out of bounds, but that didn’t stop the Steelers from using the approach again later on:
Circled in yellow, five Steelers align with the left numbers. This is not by accident but a clear indication of their intent to exploit this approach on a consistent basis.
Pittsburgh also employs a number of different fronts in order to disguise their scheme. In the following example, they start with eight men on the line of scrimmage:
The Steelers run several twists on the interior line (indicated in yellow), and bring a significant amount of pressure on the Jets using this alignment.
However, later in the game, they use a similar setup in a different manner:
Pittsburgh stacks nine men near the line of scrimmage, forcing the Jets to bring their right gunner in to create a formation known as “punt tight right”. But what do the Steelers actually do? They set up for a return:
On the left side of the screen, two Steelers double-team the tight gunner, leaving only seven men rushing the punter. So while this look initially indicated pressure, the Steelers used it to force the Jets to adjust their coverage and blocking calls, while moving themselves into an advantageous situation and setting up their wall return.
With a phenomenal Ravens punt team squaring off with a strong Steelers return squad, this promises to be a strong matchup.
When Pittsburgh Punts
Pittsburgh employs my favorite punter in the league in Australian rugby convert Brad Wing. However, Wing rates slightly below most of his peers. His 43.7-yard gross average falls short of the NFL mark by a yard and a half, and he struggles with pinning teams inside the 20-yard line, with only 32.8% of his kicks downed in that zone. Wing, also mediocre in his touchback and fair catch rates, holds a tremendous amount of potential, but continues to search for consistency early in his career.
The Steelers battery, one of the NFL’s quickest, produces snap-to-kick times approaching 1.8 seconds. Wing struggles somewhat with hang-time, typically falling in the 4.1- to 4.2-second range, which is on the low-end for an NFL punter.
On the other side of the ball, Jacoby Jones, the primary punt returner for the Ravens, sports a 9.2 yard average this year. While he lacks the top-end speed displayed earlier in his career, his strong instincts still position him as an above-average. Jones does not have a touchdown in the return game this season, but he remains a threat to change field position when he gets the ball.
When Baltimore Kicks Off
Led by kicker Justin Tucker, the Ravens’ unit ranks in the top third of the league. Tucker booms 69.8% of his launches for touchbacks, well above the NFL’s 52.3% average. In the unlikely event a returner does bring the ball out, the Ravens coverage unit gives up lots of real estate ‒ 23.1 yards per return, tied for 13th-worst in the NFL. This rates as an above-average unit due only to Tucker, as their coverage team shows no ability to create an impact on its own.
Fortunately for Baltimore, the Steelers feature an anemic kickoff return unit that averages only 21.7 yards per return, near the bottom of the league. Of their two primary returners, Markus Wheaton and Dri Archer, Wheaton had the better season while compiling a 24.7 yard average on 20 runbacks.
The Ravens may hold an advantage in this special teams facet due to Tucker’s leg, but neither club features a game-changing unit.
When Pittsburgh Kicks Off
Pittsburgh’s Shaun Suisham is simply not built for kickoffs. Only 37.2% of his kicks result in touchbacks, the fifth-lowest mark in the league. giving up 23.1 yards per return, the same mark as their counterparts on the Ravens. While the coverage team has the same numbers as their Baltimore unit, it is still a below-average squad due to Suisham, giving the Ravens additional opportunities for yardage.
Jones is the primary kickoff returner for the Ravens, and racked a 108-yard touchdown against the Steelers earlier this season:
While the outcome of the game remained unchanged by the late return, it shows that Jones is still capable of being a force. The Ravens have great blocking on the left side of the return that allows Jones to hit a huge hole, and potentially places some doubt in the minds of the Steelers coverage unit heading into this weekend’s battle.
Tucker struggled from distance for the Ravens this year, going only 4-for-9 on kicks over 50 yards. However, even with these issues, he logged a perfect 25-for-25 from shorter distances. Prior to this season, Tucker never compiled an accuracy below 90% , and he remains a top kicker in the league.
Suisham has also had a tremendous season kicking the ball as well while going 29-for-32, his fourth campaign in the last five with a success rate above 90%. Suisham’s weakness is his leg strength, having made just 6 of 17 field goals from beyond 50 yards in his career, and he simply lacks the power to be a real weapon for the Steelers.
Summary: Ravens at Steelers Special Teams Preview
The matchup between Baltimore’s punt unit and the return team from Pittsburgh is one of the best special teams clashes fans will see this season. With neither team particularly strong on either side of the ball on kickoffs, the Ravens have a slight advantage in placekicking due to Tucker’s booming leg. Overall, the tale of the tape slightly favors Baltimore, but should make for great entertainment.
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Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, thehumanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.