Super Bowl Breakdown: Not-So-Special Teams

| 6 years ago

Super Bowl Breakdown: Not-So-Special Teams

Last year when the Saints and Colts faced off in the Super Bowl, it was a battle between not just two high-powered offenses, but two of the best special teams units as well (both graded in our top ten).

This year we again have two great quarterbacks leading their explosive offenses, only this time both have had their struggles with their special teams (both grading in our bottom 10 overall).

The top player on either unit is the Packers punter Tim Masthay, coming off the back of one of the best punting displays of the season in the NFC Championship game, but this game might turn more on who can avoid the big special-teams mistake rather than who can make the game-changing play.

The Kickoff Conundrum

When the Steelers made the switch from Jeff Reed to Shaun Suisham, they basically decided they wanted a kicker who could consistently make field goals. The tradeoff saw them get a guy who would not be quite as useful to them on kickoffs. Green Bay has faced a similar problem all year with Mason Crosby. The man from Lubbock, Texas, has averaged 61 yards per kickoff while Suisham has averaged 59, both well below the league average this year of 65.

What this means is that both offenses should expect better field position on offense when they start the ball from kickoffs than they are used to. Both teams, on average, allow opposing teams to start at the 30 compared to the league average of the 26. The better field position can only be a good thing for both offenses, and for those who like to bet the over.

Past vs. Present

The special teams problems for these teams go back long before this year. Part of the Packers’ punting problems last year came from Jeremy Kapinos, who was let go at the end of the season. As fate would have it, when one of the league’s better punters, Daniel Sepulveda, went down, the Steelers turned to Kapinos to fill in.

In Kapinos’ replacement, Masthay, they have a punter who has been better over the course of the season and has been very hot of late. The only thing stopping his success was the Green Bay offense, which kept him off the field vs. Atlanta. If it comes down to a punting game, Green Bay has the edge.

Unhappy Returns

All season long, including the last few weeks, the Packers have been undecided on who they should have returning their kickoffs. During the playoffs, they have used James Starks, Charles Woodson and Sam Shields. So far Shields has shown the most potential to make a big play with his amazing speed, but he also has shown that he at times has trouble catching the ball in the first place. Starks, on the other hand, has shown to be a little more consistent but has yet to show he can make a big play as a returner.

On punt returns Tramon Williams has been the go to guy, though he has also shown questionable decision-making.  He’s guilty of trying to make plays when there”s nothing there — which cost Green Bay in a regular season encounter with Atlanta when he fumbled, and almost against the Bears when he fumbled a ball out-of-bounds. Memories of Desmond Howard’s Super Bowl TD are still fresh in Green Bay, but the Packers need to be sure it isn’t a mistake on a return that losses the game this time around.

Antonio Brown is expected to return kicks for the Steelers. He has been consistent, but hasn’t had a big one since Week 2. Brown and Antwaan Randle-El have been splitting  the punt returns, and neither has had a long return all season. The Steelers were also one of the league leaders in special-teams penalties, which has contributed to the Steelers inability to have a relevant return game.

If It Comes Down To A Kick …

Both kickers have had fairly strong years when it comes to kicking field goals. Suisham has only missed two kicks all year for the Steelers, and both were longer than 40 yards with one of them being at the end of the first half against the Ravens in the playoffs. The concern could be that Suisham hasn’t attempted a kick beyond 50 yards all year, and missed the only one he tried in 2009 with Washington.

Crosby has been pretty sketchy over the last two seasons, in the bottom half of the league, but did have 80-percent accuracy from beyond 40 yards in 2010. Garrett Hartley came into the Super Bowl with a pretty thin resume last year and ended up as a hero, it’ll be interesting to see if either Suisham or Crosby can do the same.

Neither has been put in a situation this year in which they need to kick a field goal in the last few minutes to tie or win a game.

| Director of Analytics

Nathan has been with Pro Football Focus since 2010. He is the Director of Analytics, an NFL analyst, and a fantasy writer.

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