NFL preseason games are, by and large, rather terrible. But we watch. Why? Two main reasons.
First of all, we’re football-starved and football-crazed. We want to watch football.
But also, it’s our time for scouting. Watching preseason games, you can’t tell much from a team standpoint (limited schemes, veterans who don’t care, substitutions that would never occur during a regular season game), but you can certainly evaluate individual players. Especially the young bucks, new additions and players stepping into larger roles this season.
During the Steelers’ opening preseason game against Detroit, I’m sure most people were watching Ziggy Hood, Byron Leftwich, Joe Burnett, Keenan Lewis, Antonio Brown, Maurkice Pouncey, Dennis Dixon, Isaac Redman and so on, and so forth. As was I. But there’s one player I watched more closely than anyone else: Jeff “Skippy” Reed.
Football Outsiders (every football fan should buy FO’s Almanac) determined that, last season, the Steelers had “the worst net kickoff value of any team since kickoffs were moved back to the 30-yard line in 1994.” The culprits? ” … horrific coverage combined with the weak leg of Jeff Reed … ”
It’s not just the coverage. I think I might have mentioned this before. Reed had three touchbacks last season — good for 30th in the league. He averaged 59.8 yards per kickoff — which means he ranked 41st in that category. In a 32-team league. Oof. Reed had the worst kickoff yardage of any full-time NFL kicker last season.
And yet, despite these statistics, a kickoff leg that is getting weaker and his special brand of off-field antics, Reed returns.
Reed has made some big field goals over the years. But a kickoff leg is more important than you might think.
Field goals, of course, are the only reason why Reed is still around. In the era of extremely accurate field goal kicking, Reed is in the top third of active kickers in terms of field goal percentage. No complaints there. I won’t anoint him for making field goals other kickers make, but I won’t crucify Reed for missing a few field goals against the Bears, either. It happens.
Most people don’t think of replacing Reed. He’s become a constant. But whenever it’s suggested, you’re bound to hear the same defense of Skippy: “But he’s the only guy who can kick at Heinz Field!”
How many other Steeler kickers have we had during that time? One. Kris Brown, for one season. Kris Brown, one of the least accurate kickers in the NFL. Kris Brown, whose field goal percentage has actually been worse during his eight seasons in Houston than it was during his three seasons in Pittsburgh. Maybe we should just realize we’re comparing Reed to a poor field goal kicker. Nearly everyone would look good by comparison.
But the defense doesn’t rest there. Exhibit B (or A, for many fans) involves visiting kickers missing field goals at Heinz Field, as they are wont to do. But why would we compare Reed, who’s attempted far more field goals than anyone else at Heinz Field, to a visiting kicker who isn’t familiar with kicking at the stadium? Who’s to say, had we cut Reed and kept Rob Bironas, that Bironas wouldn’t be the guy who could magically tame the wild grasses of Heinz Field? As of now, we’re giving Reed too much credit on that point.
Anyway, during the first preseason game, I tracked Reed’s kickoffs, measuring hang time and noting where the ball landed (or was caught). For comparison, I tracked a few other kickoffs: Detroit’s Aaron Pettrey in the same game, and a few kickoffs from tonight’s DEN-CIN tilt.
3.63 seconds – landed at the 8-yard line
3.62 – the back of the end zone (!) Bob Pompeani pointed out the wind was at his back, but still, good for Reed.
3.94 – 1-yard line
3.96 – 11-yard line
(Around this time, my wife walked in on me using the stopwatch function on my cell phone.)
“What are you doing?”
“Timing kickoff hangtime.”
” … I’ll be in the dining room.”
3.84 – 1-yard line
3.88 – 5-yard line
Aaron Pettrey (DET)
4.19 – 6-yard line
3.81 – 8-yard line
Dave Rayner (CIN)
4.1 – 4-yard line
Matt Prater (DEN)
4.5 – 15-yard line
4.39 – 6-yard line
I stopped after that. You get the point. Yes, it’s a small sample size. But even when accounting for human error in timing, I’m still very concerned with Reed’s inability to get decent hang time or yardage on his kickoffs. At his age, there’s no reason to believe Reed will improve at this. He’s putting the coverage team at a severe disadvantage.
I don’t know what can be done at this point, other than Daniel Sepulveda getting a look on kickoffs. There was some talk about that. Perhaps it’s still being bandied about. But if Reed keeps kicking off, I suggest the Steelers get creative. If he can’t boot ‘em into the end zone — or anywhere near it — perhaps he’d be better off working on hang time than distance. Or maybe he can master some sort of wacky squib kick.
If the Steelers can get great tackling on kickoffs this year, they could be an average kickoff coverage team. With Reed’s kickoffs, maybe that’s the ceiling. But after last season, average results would be applauded.