Your resident AFC North blogger asked Steelers coach Mike Tomlin on Tuesday what the Steelers need to do better on special teams in their rematch against the Jets.
"We need to stop Brad Smith from going 97 yards," Tomlin said. "That's a good start."
Contrary to popular belief, the Steelers didn't lose to the Jets in Week 15 because of poor offense or poor defense. The Steelers outgained the Jets by 101 yards, and Pittsburgh's offense outscored New York's 17-13.
But hidden yards on special teams and Smith's 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown proved to be the difference in New York's 22-17 victory. New York gained 177 total yards on kickoff and punt returns, which had an impact on field position and consistently gave the Jets a short field. This will be an area to watch for Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game.
Pittsburgh's coverage teams have been an issue in previous seasons, so much so that the Steelers fired former special-teams coach Bob Ligashesky and hired Al Everest this season. Pittsburgh's special teams have made strides in the first year under Everest. But his unit probably had its worst game of the season against the Jets.
Smith missed the Jets' divisional-round victory over the New England Patriots on Sunday with a groin injury. His status for this Sunday's game is still to be determined, but the Steelers know the Jets are still dangerous in the third phase of the game.
"They're a very good group," Tomlin said. "It doesn't matter whether Brad Smith is back there or [Antonio] Cromartie is back there. You saw what [Cromartie] did against Indianapolis at a critical time. He's a very capable and dangerous return man, but they have a team of potentially capable return men."