Steeler Punters: The Search is Over

I know most fans don’t care much about punters. Thinking of them as an afterthought, only to be an object of ire and disgust, to kick em when they’re down when they have a bad play. We remember the days of Bill Cowher berating Josh Miller on the sidelines after a bad kick. More of a knee-jerk bully move that offered nothing in constructive criticism, or advice to coach em up. Josh had the last laugh earning a superbowl ring in NE before retiring, so Belichick thought he was good enough.

Enter the era of finding the next great punter. In 2000 we witnessed the worst offense win the Superbowl when the Ravens hoisted the Lombardi. Sure they had one of the top defensive years in history, but their special teams were equally as dominant. They had an excellent return game with Germaine Lewis, putting their offensive MVP (IMHO) Matt Stover, in position to kick that team to victory each weekend. Their punter, Kyle Richardson, was a field flipping weapon, who paired with the excellent kick coverage units, placed the opposing teams in the worst possible locations to go up against that formidable defense. Without excellent kickers, the Ravens don’t even sniff a Super Bowl that season.

So Miller departs and the Steelers suffer with Gardoki for 3 years. Knowing that punting is important to help the defense, the Steelers FO makes a bold move and try to sign the RFA Andy Lee away from the 49ers. A good move, since Lee was one of the best young punters in the league, and since he drafted in the 6th round, the compensation would have been a 6th round pick, to get one of the best, if not the best, punters in the league. Unfortunately, the 49ers had us create Lee’s contract and matched the Steelers offer to sign him. This led to a chain of events on the punting roller-coaster Steeler fans got to enjoy for the past decade.

Instead of costing a 6th rounder to pick up a punter via RFA, the Steelers instead used a 4th rounder on the thickly built Daniel Sepulveda. He looked like a linebacker. In his highlights, he blew up a guy and forced a fumble in college. This is a kicker the blue collar Steelers can rally around! Fortunately the internet wasn’t as developed, so a 4th round pick on a punter didn’t destroy any message boards, though there was a bit of displeasure using a high pick on a punter. He had the power and hang time, but his technique put tremendous strain on his plant leg, and he ended up missing the entire 2008 season as well as the end of 2010 and 2011 before retiring. Even though he has a Super Bowl ring, he never kicked in any Super Bowl for the Steelers. I thought the ground kicking Mitch Berger would cost us a chance at #6, but he at least followed through on that punt, after kicking the ground first, and allowed Pittsburgh to hoist the Lombardi. Kapinos was the Steelers kicker in the Green Bay Super Bowl, but he wasn’t anything special either, and also didn’t hurt the Steelers’ chances.

Then the parade-of-punters started with Butler, Zoltan, McBriar, Wing. I was happy when the Steelers got Zoltan. Doing the Z was fun, but it was not to stay, since he was injured and out by midseason. Brad Wing was a new direction. Entering into the Aussie footballer route to find punters has been well documented and quite successful around the league. These guys are born punting, and they do it all the time in the Aussie Football League. They know how to get a punt away under duress, and they also know how to tackle a guy, and don’t shy away from contact. They also are very good at kicking with backspin, to down the ball inside the 10. Wing had a good rookie year providing some of our most consistent punting in recent memory, and even threw for a first down! He looked even better that offseason. So much so, that the front office had to make a decision to keep Wing, or the other phenom Aussie kicker, Jordan Berry.

Berry kills the football with his leg. Excellent distance and hang time. He did so well, that the steelers were actually able to trade a punter for a draft pick! That’s huge. The position that had been weak for years, now was thick enough at punter, that Pittsburgh gained a draft pick!. Berry being kept over Wing seemed to be received in a very ho-hum manner from Steeler fans. As soon as he kicked his first 70yd beauty, I was in awe. I watch this guy kick in person, and he can literally kick it out of the stadium. Not only that, but he’s also shown he’s accurate and can pin a team inside the 10. The Steelers now have a field flipping punter who can put the ball on the other team’s 30, while being backed up in an end zone. This is a huge advantage. One the Ravens have been exploiting for years with Koch. This is just the weapon Pittsburgh needs with a strong offense and a defense on the rise. This under appreciated position in football will be necessary to eek out a couple wins if the offense bogs down, and give the defense help with a long field. Berry is the weapon that will hopefully continue to wow us, when he lines up 15 yards deep on 4th downs.

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