Tyreek Hill led the NFL in punt return average (15.2) in 2016. (Shane Keyserskeyser@kcstar.com)
PITTSBURGH – It’s not every day that Chris Boswell finds himself cornered in front of his locker stall by a pack of reporters.
The Steelers kicker could only smile when reminded of his predicament Wednesday morning.
But, as his coach famously says, such is life in the NFL. Especially in January where every play -- good or bad -- is magnified. As a kicker, whose right leg can decide a game with one field goal or extra point, pressure is nothing new.
“No, there’s not any more (pressure),” Boswell said. “This is the NFL. Every game matters, every kick maters. Just because they have a good returner back there doesn’t mean it makes my job any harder. Because, I mean, all I do is kick it. We just have to be able to cover as a unit and tackle as a unit.”
That “good” returner Boswell alludes to is Tyreek Hill, who the Steelers will face Sunday in the AFC Divisional Round at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. Say what you will about the Chiefs’ controversial rookie wide receiver off the field, there’s been plenty of that, Hill has been better than merely good on it.
Hill leads the NFL in punt return average (15.2) and punt returns for touchdowns (2). He’s third in kickoff return average (27.4) to go along with one TD, a return in which he was clocked running 22.77 miles per hour at Denver.
“One of the most dynamic players, one of the most explosive players in the NFL,” Boswell said.
When the Steelers last faced the Chiefs in Week 3 at Heinz Field, Hill was still in the infancy of his career. In that game, Hill had a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter only to have it negated by penalty. Still, he returned two kicks for 54 yards and two punts for 20, while adding a 10-yard TD reception in the fourth quarter of the Steelers’ 43-14 win.
Hill has only gotten better since then. Beginning with Week 10, Hill’s eight touchdowns are the most by any receiver in the league.
The Steelers would like to make sure that number doesn’t reach nine. That will likely mean kicking away from Hill on punts and kickoffs. But, as Boswell explains, that’s easier said than done.
In their must-win game against Baltimore on Christmas night, the Steelers found out the perils of directional kicking. Two weeks after tying a franchise record with six field goals at Buffalo, Boswell pulled two kickoffs out of bounds, giving the Ravens the ball at the 40. With Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker blasting kickoffs into the seats, Boswell admits he may have gotten a little out of his comfort zone.
“I’m not one of those guys who sprints into the ball and is blasting it every time,” he said. “I’m more momentum and more control. I don’t really go full out on a kickoff because that’s just not my rhythm. A lot of guys do, but that doesn’t match me. It doesn’t feel right with me. That’s probably what I was doing two weeks ago with Baltimore. I was trying to smash it and hit a lot of bad balls.”
Jordan Berry, whose net average of 40.2 yards per punt ranked 16th this season and his 25 punts inside the 20 ranked 15th, is much improved at directional punts this season. But a lot of that, the Aussie says, is dependent upon the weather. Though the temperature won’t be nearly as frigid as it was for last week’s wild-card win over Miami at Heinz Field, Sunday’s forecast in Kansas City is calling for freezing rain.
“It’s a little more difficult, you’re not going straight up in the air,” Berry said. “You have got to get your angles right with your drop and step. You just have to pick a point and kick to it. It’s nothing too crazy. But if the conditions are bad, it’ll make it more difficult.”
Whether they are kicking off or punting, the Steelers have to cover and have to tackle. Those are two areas where the Steelers special teams have struggled all season. Boswell, who made a TD-saving shoestring tackle against Cincinnati’s Alex Erickson in Week 15, joked he isn’t going to be hitting the tackling dummies this week in practice.
That will fall to players like rookie linebacker Tyler Matakevich, who led the Steelers in the regular season with 10 special teams tackles.
Matakevich says the key to success is really quite simple. The plan doesn’t change whoever is handling the kicks: The Steelers have to maintain their lanes and make the tackles when the opportunity is presented.
“He’s dangerous, that’s what makes him special,” Matakevich said of Hill. “He’s fearless. He’ll catch the ball with a few guys behind him and take off. We just have to be prepared for it. (Special teams) Coach Danny (Smith) is doing an excellent job getting us ready. It’s just on all 11 of us going down there and doing our job.”