I have no idea the number of articles over the past nine years that I’ve begun with some variation of talking about how special teams is an area of the game that most people don’t care about until they have to—a missed field goal, at shanked punt, a fumble, a long return allowed. I don’t know how many times I’ve written this. I just know it’s a lot.
The good news is that most teams tend to value special teams more than most fans do, which is why the majority of them actually have a special teams coordinator, who is as responsible for his group as the offensive and defensive coordinators are for theirs.
In the Pittsburgh Steelers’ case, that would be Danny Smith, who has been with the team for a decade now. The results that he gets out of his units—which is always dependent upon what players he is allowed to keep on the 53-man roster—can be debated, but I think anybody who has seen him at work will not question the effort he puts in, and the effort he demands from his players.
That’s because he doesn’t let them look at special teams as a task, a duty, a responsibility, or even a punishment. It’s a starting job. Even if you have one role on one unit, say, an edge on the field-goal-blocking unit, that’s your starting job, and that’s how you should approach it, even if it’s four or five snaps a game.
Others may have four or five roles, which takes them across 300 snaps per season, even pushing 400 snaps. These are the ‘four-phase’ special teams players you may have seen written here and there—generally, those are asked to play on both punt and kickoff return and coverage units. They could additionally play on the field goal or blocking units, to boot.
Whatever they’re asked to do, however, Smith asks them to do it with the mentality of a starter. That’s what he looks for. “It’s cool in college not to have to go to a punt team meeting”, he told reporters during the spring, via 93.7 The Fan. “You hang out on campus, you going to lunch or whatever you are doing. It’s cool not to go to the punt team meeting, but it ain’t cool no more”. Now it’s your job.
“We were talking to the running backs and the safeties”, he said of how he addressed his group. “I used the example; ‘Men, Najee Harris isn’t coming out of a game. Where are you getting your carries?’. I said, ‘Minkah Fitzpatrick isn’t coming out of a game’”.
So who isn’t coming out of the game for the Steelers? Last year, there were five players who played a much larger role than everybody else—all of them over 60 percent of the special teams snaps. Those were Ulysees Gilbert III, Miles Killebrew, Derek Watt, Benny Snell Jr., and Marcus Allen. Robert Spillane would have been up there as well if not for his knee injury.
Justin Layne and James Pierre were also at or near 50 percent, but those five all logged 300-plus snaps. Those are the Najees and Minkahs for Danny Smith—even if none of them played more than 110 snaps on offense or defense. Spillane, with over 300 defensive snaps, would have been the exception.