Part 10: Special Teams
On the eve of the season, we’re back with the 10th and final episode of Steelers All-Time All-Rookie team. In this edition: special teams. The first nine essays are linked below, but for those who missed them, here’s how it works: I’ll include an introduction to account for some players you may expect to see, but who didn’t make the cut. Then I’ll list starters, backups, and others worth consideration — followed with a poll for Steelers Nation to weigh in.
The Ground Rules:
1 — I’m looking at the entire history of the Steelers/”Pirates.”
2 — The player must have begun his career with Pittsburgh.
3 — Only the rookie year will factor in; a great career is unnecessary.
4 — The poll and the comments section are open — have at it.
For past essays:
You will not see Roy Gerela in the list below (he began his career as a Houston Oiler). Same for Norm Johnson (Seahawks) and Shaun Suisham (Cowboys). Matt Bahr won a ring as a rookie in Super Bowl XIV, but was only a 60% FG kicker in 1979. Kris Brown probably deserves a look for this team, but we’ve got to draw the line somewhere. So who’s our All rookie kicker?
Chris Boswell (2015)
29-32 on FG (90.6%)
26-27 on PAT (96.3%)
8-8 in post-season (7-7 on FG, 1-1 PAT)
Kicked game-winner in the rain to beat Cincinnati and end ugliest game I’ve ever seen
AFC Special Teams Player of the Week (Wk 6)
AFC Special Teams Player of the Month (December)
Top 10 in NFL in FGs, FGA, and FG%, despite only playing 12 games
Also registered two tackles
Chris Boswell is one of the more under-appreciated players in the league. He currently sits at #4 in NFL history in field goal percentage. No kidding. And that’s counting his “slump” season from 2018. And the man has never missed a post-season field goal (including a record 6-6 against KC in his second year). And all this started right from day one.
A mid-season replacement pickup for ineffective Josh Scobee in 2015, Boswell was AFC Special Teams Player of the Week in his SECOND game as a Steeler. He got this honor for going 4-4 on field goals against Arizona in a Pittsburgh upset, which included two from 40+ and one from 51. He was then AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for December. During the Steelers 3-1 late-season push, the rookie hit 23 kicks out of 24 attempts, which included a 51 yard FG and four from beyond 40.
And then he carved the heart out of Vontaze Burfict in the rainy, violent, ugly Wild Card game. He’s my kicker.
Gary Anderson (1982)
Played all nine non-strike games
10-12 in FG (83.3%)
22-22 in PAT (100%)
4-4 in PAT during playoff loss
Gary Anderson is one of the greatest special teams players of all time, and carried the Steelers kicking game for 13 seasons. Originally drafted by the Buffalo Bills (7th round) he landed with the Steelers in the 1982 strike season, and immediately won the job. Over ten games (which included a playoff loss to the L.A. Raiders), he hit 94.7% of his kicks. At various points in his Pittsburgh career, Anderson held the record for most consecutive PATs made — which meant something different when they were kicked from the 2-yard line, but everyone kicked from there, so a record is a record.
He’d be a terrific rookie kicker, if Boswell hadn’t proved so clutch and so impressive.
Jeff Reed (2002)
Mid-season acquisition (played 6 games)
17-19 on FG (89.5%)
10-11 on PAT (90.9%)
In two playoff games, 3-5 on FG (60%), and 6-6 on PAT
Also made two tackles
Jeff Reed may have been a menace to restroom towel distributors, but he was a reliable kicker for eight seasons, including two Super Bowl championships. Another mid-season signing to replace Todd Peterson (who was himself replacing Kris Brown), Reed immediately hit 3-4 in field goals, and 2-3 in PATs (his only miss of the year) to help topple the Bengals on Thanksgiving week. Like all these kickers, he did his work in the Pittsburgh elements. I can’t place him ahead of Boz or Anderson, but I was glad he was a Steeler for years.
For starters, I can’t include Pressley Harvin yet. Let’s get that out of the way. Bobby Walden (punter for two of the 70s champs) actually led the league in punting average as a rookie — unfortunately he was a Minnesota Viking at the time. Craig Colquitt took the 70s the rest of the way, but was pretty average his rookie season, as was Josh Miller, who held the position through the late 90s and early 2000s. Harry Newsome, a boomer from the late 80s (who holds an unfortunate NFL record for his six(!) blocked punts in 1988) couldn’t manage even 40.0 gross yards per punt in 1985. Most other Steelers punters started elsewhere. So who does that leave?
Dan Sepulveda (2007)
68 punts, for a 42.4 average
Coverage allowed 8.6 yards/return (net: 33.8)
Zero punts blocked
1-1 passing, for 32 yards
Also recorded one tackle
NFL All Rookie Team
Jeff Sepulveda was sometimes nicknamed “robo-punter” in these parts, after being drafted in the 4th round of the 2007 draft. He had a big leg, and a killer attitude — once saying he wanted to be thought of as a football player who happened to punt (and his 6’3” 229 pound frame suggested that he had a leg to stand on, so to speak). But he struggled with injuries in his five year NFL career. (Maybe he should have settled for “punter.”) And never got a chance to live up to the hype.
His rookie season showed his potential in spurts, such as his two-week stretch against Arizona and Seattle, in which he averaged 49.3 yards per punt on 13 kicks, and recorded a tackle against the Seahawks. The talent was there, but he couldn’t stick around. Still, he’s the top rookie punter we’ve seen around here.
Jordan Berry (2015)
59 punts, for a 42.6 average
Coverage allowed 8.7 yards/return (net: 33.9)
Zero punts blocked
Longest punt in NFL that year (79 yards)
Also recorded one tackle
Believe it or not, Jordan Berry is the Steelers all time leader in punting average. For real. I think he made some fans this preseason, as he fought Pressley Harvin for the job, so maybe that fact won’t surprise as many fans as it would have in the past. But it did surprise me.
Moreover, Berry’s rookie season stats are almost identical to Dan Sepulveda’s. They are essentially the same in gross and net average; neither had a punt blocked and both recorded a tackle. Berry had the longest punt in the league his rookie year; Sepulveda threw for a 32 yard first down on a fake. Sepulveda averaged 44.3 yards on four punts in the 2007 playoffs, while Berry averaged 40.9 in the 2015 postseason, but had to kick thirteen times (it’s harder to maintain a long average with a lot of punts).
It’s a real judgment call between them. Ultimately, Sepulveda was named to the NFL All Rookie Team, and that made the difference for me. But, oddly, just like in 2021 training camp, this might be the tightest fight of all. Bizzare.
Precious few Steelers return men were good on both punt returns and kickoff returns. (I didn’t actually know that until researching this article.) So I’m going to pick one of each and separate them.
That said, two names you’re almost certainly expecting to see (one for punts, one for kickoffs) won’t appear below because they weren’t special as rookies. I’m talking, of course, about Antonio Brown and Rod Woodson. Both looked decent, but neither were in the same class as the names below. Another (who you might not know) is Gary Ballman, who was outstanding in his first year returning kicks, 1963. Unfortunately, his rookie season was 1962. So he can’t make the team. Other missing men include Dwight Stone (1987) and Jim Smith (1977). Both were good, but not great. Finally, the greatest return man in Steelers history, Lynn Chandnois (1957) was excellent as a rookie, but just not utilized enough. He average 11.0 yards on punt returns and 29.3 on kickoffs, but combined for only 15 returns between the two.
Stefan Logan (2009)
55 KO returns, 26.7 average (#6 NFL)
83 long, 0 TD
30 punt returns, 9.3 average
#3 in NFL in total returns & total return yards
Yeah, I was surprised too. But the numbers suggest that Logan was the best overall returner (in both kicks and punts), the top kickoff returner overall, and the guy who returned the highest number of kicks, with an absurd 85. Logan was originally a camp body who overperformed in the preseason and found his way onto the team. His career was an oddball ride, though. He played in the CFL for a couple of years, and was actually a 28 year old rookie in 2009. Then, after a fairly successful season, he was not retained, and wound up as a Detroit Lion for three years, retiring at 31. And despite playing dead in the middle of the most successful period of Steelers football this era — which saw the team in the post-season in 2007-08 and 2010-11, with Super Bowls in ‘08 and ‘10 — Logan’s one season in town was 2009, the non-playoff year.
Johnny Lattner (1954)
16 KO returns, 25.8 yards per return (#5 in NFL)
17 punt returns, 4.3 yards per return (#7 in NFL, somehow)
#8 in NFL in All Purpose Yards, and Kick/Punt Return Yards
One of several repeat performers we’ll see on this list, Johnny Lattner previously appeared as a running back consideration. Kick returner was his real position, though. If you remember his story from then, Lattner was a superstar in college — a Heisman Trophy winner who twice won the Maxwell Award at Notre Dame. His rookie season in Pittsburgh featured a Pro Bowl bid as a return man, and a strong all-around performance. Then he enlisted in the Air Force, blew out his knee playing pick-up ball in the service, and never played football again. Very little about this story makes sense, but that’s how it goes.
Choosing a kickoff returner was a tough project. Lattner’s Pro Bowl helped his case. But I couldn’t justify knocking Logan.
Will Blackwell (1997)
32 KO returns, 24.7 average (#5 in NFL)
97 long; 1 TD
23 punt returns, 6.5 average
5 playoff punt returns, for 19.4 average
AFC Special Teams POWeek (wk 6)
Will Blackwell’s Steelers career was spotty at best. He stayed in town for five years as a wide receiver and kick returner, starting two games on offense, and only serving as the primary return-man as a rookie. That said, his kickoff returns in that rookie season were pretty impressive. Blackwell was #5 in the NFL in kickoff returns that year, and earned AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for his three kickoff returns for 129 yards — a 43.0 yard avg. — and 1 td, in the Steelers 42-34 win over the Baltimore Ravens. Despite a successful postseason, Blackwell yielded the kickoff duties to Courtney Hawkins in 1998, and much of the punt returns David Dunn.
Larry Anderson (1978)
37 KO returns, 25.1 yards average (#2 in NFL)
Long return of 95 yards (#4 in NFL)
1 touchdown (#1 in NFL)
6 KO returns in playoffs, 19.5 average
0 punt returns
Primary KO returner on Super Bowl champs
In a previous round of these essays, I gushed about Dwayne Woodruff’s ice-water veins, after he started a game at cornerback for the legendary 1979 Steel Curtain as a rookie. Amp that up a notch or two for Larry Anderson, who was the primary kickoff returner for the two-time Super Bowl champion Steelers, going for their then-record third Lombardi in his rookie year. How did it go? Well, Anderson finished second in the NFL in kickoff returns, brought one kick back to the house, and earned a ring in 1978. One could do a whole lot worse.
Lynn Swann (1974)
41 punt returns, 14.1 yard average (#4 in NFL)
Led NFL in punt return yardage (577)
Long return of 69 yards
8 playoff punt returns (9.5 yard average)
Only 2 kickoff returns (both regular season); 5.5 yard average
Also played a little wide receiver on the side
NFL All Rookie Team
Boy, was this a tough decision to make. Steelers rookie punt returners are quite possibly the most talented group on the entire team. That’s hard to believe, but just look at the list below. We’ve got three All-Rookie punt returners, two Pro Bowlers, two All Pro’s, and an NFL Rookie of the Year. How do you cut that list down?
Well, I went with Lynn Swann, for several reasons. First, he had the combination of a high average, a high number of returns, and an All Rookie designation. Second, punt returner must have been a hugely important position on a team that was constructed for field position (rushing/defense). Plus, he lead the league in PR yards. And he was my all-time favorite player when I was a kid (and I’m making this list).
I’ll admit, I’m also relieved to include SOMEONE from the legendary 1974 draft class, which features five Hall of Famers, but only one other member of the All Rookie team (Jack Lambert at inside linebacker). So Swann it is. But goodness, what a list below…
Diontae Johnson (2019)
20 punt returns, 12.4 average (#1 in NFL)
Long return of 85 yards (#1 in NFL)
1 touchdown (#2 in NFL)
AFC Special Teams Player of the Week (Wk 14)
2nd Team All Pro as returner
Like a lot of the Steelers wide receiver/kick returners, Diontae Johnson has mostly yielded his return duties as his offensive role has grown. That’s a good thing for the offense. But he was perhaps the strongest punt returner in the NFL as a rookie — leading the league in average, and recording the longest return in football. The only knock on Johnson is his low number of returns. But that didn’t stop the AP voters, who named him a second team All Pro in 2019.
Louis Lipps (1984)
53 punt returns, 12.4 yards per return (#3 in NFL)
Led NFL in punt return yardage (656)
Long return of 76 (#3 in NFL)
0 KO returns in regular season
3 KO returns in postseason (24.3 yard average)
NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year
Another repeat offender, Louis Lipps did it all in 1984. Like Swann, he lead the NFL in punt return yards. Like Johnson, he averaged 12.4 yards per return. Like both he brought a punt back to the house. But like neither of them, Lipps was a Pro Bowler and the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year (which is to say, he was a full-time player in both roles). Lipps’ 656 punt return yards are still the Steelers all-time record, and are actually the 8th highest total in NFL history (Swann’s 577 are 32nd all time, but are slightly higher per game — 41.2 for Swann / 41.0 for Lipps).
In any case, Louis Lipps ought to be better remembered. He reads more and more like a tragic figure to me — just an absolute monster, who had the misfortune of playing with lousy quarterbacks and on lousy teams.
Hank Poteat (2000)
30 punt returns, 13.0 average (#5 in NFL)
54 long, 1 TD
24 KO returns, 19.4 average
NFL All Rookie Team
I remember Hank Poteat returning kicks in the early 2000s, but I don’t remember him being this good. His 13.0 average tops Johnson, Lipps, or Antwaan Randle El, and it landed him on the NFL’s All Rookie team. Shocking. His average plummeted in year two, falling from 13.0 to 8.1. When it didn’t climb back up in 2002, the Steelers let him walk. Like a lot of these players, Poteat’s rookie year is his peak.
Antwaan Randle El (2002)
37 punt returns, 6.9 average
6 PR in playoffs, 15.2 average, 66 long, 1 TD
32 KO returns, 22.9 average
99 long (#2 NFL), 1 TD
AFC Special Teams POWeek (wk 8)
NFL All Rookie Team
Antwaan Randle El is a complicated figure for this list. He is one of the better return men in Steelers history, but I remember him more as a punt returner than kickoff man. However, his rookie season, he seems like a better KO guy (and his 6.9 yard punt return average is pretty mediocre). Then again, 22.9 yards isn’t that impressive (considering some of these other guys). Of course he made the NFL’s All Rookie team as a return man, and that’s a meaningful thing (presumably for kickoffs). But his best performances came in the playoffs as a punt returner, where he averaged over 15 yards per return, and scored a touchdown in the 36-33 shootout win over Cleveland. And he was ST Player of the Week for averaging 15.5 yards per punt return, and 27.5 per KO return in a 31-18 midseason win over Baltimore…
I’ve lost track of how many times I changed direction in that paragraph. ARE was a utility guy who could do it all, and did. That’s the point.
Bob Gage (1949)
16 punt returns, 15.9 average (#2 in NFL)
50 yard long return
12 KO returns, 25.0 average
Also made 5 interceptions and recovered 7 fumbles on defense
Also one of three quarterbacks who shared passing duties
And blocked a punt
Bob Gage made an appearance on the cornerback list already, but it’s worth noticing that he was also an impressive punt returner. Gage’s 15.9 yard average wasn’t just second in the NFL, it is the #2 single-season punt return average in Steelers history. For a three-way star, Gage made the most of his time. He needed to; he only played two seasons before walking off into the sunset at age 23.
Art Jones (1941)
14 punt returns
16.6 average (#2 in NFL, #17 all time, current Steelers record)
12 KO returns, 17.4 average
Also Steelers #3 rusher, #2 receiver
And led NFL in interceptions, with then-NFL record 7 picks
2nd Team All Pro (not clear what phase)
Art Jones is our final repeat player, after he was my All Rookie slot-corner. He played only two non-consecutive seasons of football (separated, I think, by WWII), but was a nightmare in that first year. He set the NFL record for interceptions, and finished with the second highest punt return average in NFL history. 1941 was the first year punt returns were recorded (according to PFR), and yet, no Steeler has ever topped Jones. I suppose I understand his name being lost to obscurity now, but I’m still a little surprised that I’d never heard of him until writing these essays.
Is the season on yet?