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Steelers special teams adjusting to new rules changes

September 5, 2018
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Steelers special teams coach Danny Smith (left) greets kicker Chris Boswell at training camp in Latrobe.

When the NFL implemented new player-safety rules on special teams, one drastic change was how teams would be permitted to cover kickoffs.

No more 5-yard running start on the kick. No more stacking extra players on one side of the formation. No more blocking within the first 15 yards of a kick -- 10 if its an onsides attempt.

One basic tenet, however, remains the same.

“You still have to run down and tackle the guy with the ball,” said linebacker Tyler Matakevich, one of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ most experienced special teams players the past two years. “I don’t think it’s that big of a difference.”

Halfway through the preseason, it turns out adapting to the kickoff coverage rule has been the least of special teams coach Danny Smith’s worries. It’s the mistakes the Steelers have made on returning kickoffs and improper alignments on extra points that have dogged Smith’s group through two games.

In the exhibition opener at Philadelphia, special teams accounted for half of the Steelers’ eight penalties. They were flagged twice for an illegal formation, once for being offside on a kickoff and once for an illegal fair catch signal.

“We also had some that weren’t called,” Smith said.

Special teams was guilty of just one infraction out of 12 penalties called in the Steelers’ 51-34 loss at Green Bay last Thursday, but it was a violation of the NFL’s kickoff policy. Fitz Toussaint, even though he was the one bringing the ball upfield, was called for an illegal blocking formation on a return early in the second quarter.

Like the other 31 special teams coaches in the NFL, Smith is trying to decipher the rules pertaining to kickoffs -- and returns -- and the points of emphasis that restrict contact with the long snapper on extra-point and field-goal tries.

Under the new kickoff rules, players on the kicking team can line up no more than 1 yard behind the ball. They could get a 5-yard running start under the previous rules.

On Chris Boswell’s first kickoff at Philadelphia, he put the ball into the end zone for a touchback. James Conner, however, was offside, and Boswell had to kick again, this time from the 30.

That kick was returned to the Steelers 36, a difference of 11 yards from the original kick.

“I’m not here to fight the rule,” Smith said. “We’ve got to abide by it. We’ve got to do it right, and we’ve got to drill this stuff more. You can take some of that for granted, but that’s not the right procedure to go about it. We’ve got to drill it more and get it right.”

The Steelers also were called for lining up too close to the long snapper after the Eagles’ first two touchdowns. First-year linebacker Farrington Huguenin and rookie defensive lineman Joshua Frazier were on each side of the long snapper. The player committing the first infraction wasn’t identified. Frazier was flagged for the second.

The NFL outlawed contact with the long snapper a few years ago. Protecting the long snapper is a point of emphasis this season, meaning the officials plan to crack down on any defensive players lining up too close to the snapper.

“You can’t be in the framework of the shoulder pads of the snapper,” Smith said. “You have to see some daylight in there. Those were close calls, but now is the time to get those things corrected. I’ve got to emphasize it more.”

Smith is paying extra attention to the rules pertaining to the kickoff return unit. Eight blockers must be stationed within a 15-yard setup zone that extends from the kicking team’s 45 to the return team’s 40. That leaves three players, including the return man, behind the setup area.

“The guys back there have to cover a lot more ground,” Matakevich said. “They have to have more of a feel of the coverage because you have eight guys playing up. But it should give you plenty of time to set up the return, figure out who to block and block them.”

That seemed to work fine for the Steelers until Toussaint was flagged for the personal foul against the Packers.

The rules change puts a premium on putting two athletic players in front of the primary kickoff returner. Fullback Roosevelt Nix and rookie running back Jaylen Samuels had the honors against the Packers.

“They’ve got to be blockers in space as well as ball carriers,” Smith said. “It’s hard to find those kind of guys unless you’ve got a lot of returners.”

Smith spent time between the first and second preseason games watching tape of every NFL game to see how other special teams coordinators dispatched personnel on kicks and punts. He will continue to tweak his units throughout the rest of the preseason.

“The good part about our league,” Smith said, “is we’ve got four games to figure this all out.”

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