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Tomlin: Special Teams Play Will Be ‘Really Significant’ In Shaping Thursday Night Game Against Patriots


The Pittsburgh Steelers will host the New England Patriots on Thursday Night Football this week. Both teams have a similar structure in the way they try to win football games, though the Steelers are 7-5 while the Patriots are 2-10. They both have offenses that struggle to sustain drives or put points on the board and defenses that have been keeping their opponents’ scores down. The over/under is currently set at a consensus 30 from Vegas, which is the lowest projected point total since 1993.

Any way you slice it, this game has the makings of an offensive disaster. The Steelers were just starting to figure some things out on offense before losing QB Kenny Pickett to injury against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. This game will be Mitch Trubisky versus Bailey Zappe, two quarterbacks who did not enter the year as starters. In a defensive battle, one of the key factors to victory can be the play of special teams.

Head coach Mike Tomlin gave his weekly keys to the game on the Steelers’ website on Wednesday afternoon and mentioned the role of special teams on Thursday night.

“The special teams component of play is probably gonna be really significant in terms of shaping this game up,” Tomlin said. “We can’t be penalized in the kicking game because it really minimizes field positions. A couple of weeks ago, we had some significant penalties in the punt return game, for example, and put us on some long fields that kept that scoring down in the first half in Cincinnati. And so we gotta be clean from a penalty perspective to give our return game a chance.”

The special teams’ penalties have been an issue. The Steelers are tied for the fourth-most special teams penalties this season with 13. The issue isn’t isolated to this season, either. The Steelers lead the league in special teams penalties with 70 since 2020. To make matters worse, the Steelers are already without Elijah Riley, and this week they will be without James Pierre, both of whom are core special teamers when healthy.

The Patriots have their own special teams issues, as K Chad Ryland is tied for the lowest field goal percentage this season at 66.7 percent. He has made 12 of his 18 attempts, including 35-yard misses in back-to-back weeks earlier this season.

The formula for a win in Pittsburgh has been to rely on the defense to keep scores down and give the offense opportunities on short fields to score just enough points to win. The only issue with that formula is that special teams can derail it in a hurry. For example, on Sunday against the Cardinals, Miles Killebrew was called for fair catch interference, face masking, and running into the kicker. The face mask penalty tacked on 15 yards to a 7-yard punt return and gave the Cardinals the ball on Pittsburgh’s 33-yard line. The Cardinals went on to score four plays later.

The Patriots will be without RB Rhamondre Stevenson, and multiple wide receivers are injured as well. The Steelers’ defense should be able to limit their points, but special teams cannot continue to lose the field position battle if they hope to win.

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