Few Pittsburgh Steelers starters will play in Friday’s preseason finale, but there are still first-string jobs to be won or lost—at punter, long snapper and kick returner. Head coach Mike Tomlin emphasized that on Wednesday, saying, “We are excited about watching the culmination of the specialist’s battle. Our punters have done a great job, as ha[ve] our snappers. Those guys will get an opportunity to put an exclamation point on their efforts in Carolina.”
Pressley Harvin III vs. Jordan Berry
To date, most of the attention has focused on the competition between punters, which pits incumbent Jordan Berry against rookie seventh-round draft pick Pressley Harvin III.
Harvin had an eye-opening debut in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game against the Cowboys, as his four punts averaged 45.8 yards. One of those punts was muffed by Dallas return man Reggie Davis, and another was downed inside the one-yard line.
Berry got the nod for preseason game #2 (vs. the Eagles) and did nothing to hurt himself. He punted four times for an average of 44 yards per kick (with a long of 54) and had two punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
Against the Lions, the Steelers punted just once, with Harvin getting off a 50-yarder.
One would think that both Berry and Harvin will get a chance to punt (and hold) on Friday, but at this point it looks like Harvin’s job to lose. Not only is his upside potential obvious, he’s a draft pick—and less expensive than the 30-year-old Berry ($660,000 salary vs. $990,000 salary, per overthecap.com).
Kameron Canaday vs. Christian Kuntz
Less closely watched but still vitally important is the competition to win the long snapping job, which features veteran Kameron Canaday against challenger Christian Kuntz, the latter of whom is a linebacker by trade.
Canaday, 28, has been Pittsburgh’s long snapper since he beat out rookie sixth-round pick Colin Holba in 2017, having started every game since the beginning of that season.
Christian Kuntz, 27, was signed to a one-year Reserve/Future contract in mid-January. He spent part of 2019 with the Steelers, and also spent time on Pittsburgh’s practice squad toward the end of last season. The Pittsburgh native—who was a three-time All-American at Duquesne—collected 30.5 sacks in college and won the Northeast Conference Defensive Player of the Year award twice.
As noted by Tomlin, both long snappers have performed admirably during the preseason—as have both holders, those being the aforementioned Berry and Harvin.
“Both of them are great. Both of them are doing a great job. It’s just about getting comfortable with each guy and building confidence,” said placekicker Chris Boswell on Wednesday during his media scrum.
So, if Boswell has a preference in terms of long snapper and holder, he isn’t saying, at least not publicly.
Asked if he gets a vote on who wins those jobs, Boswell smiled and said, “No, that’s an upstairs answer and whoever they pick or whoever they roll with, I mean, no doubt, a snapper and a punter is going to go somewhere else and play because we have four great guys here right now.”
He did note, however, that he has a certain level of comfort with Berry, who has been his holder for the better part of the past six years.
“But Pressley is doing a hell of a job and he’s a good young rookie,” Boswell concluded.
Mathew Sexton and the Kick Return Job
Last but not least, there’s also the matter of sorting who will be Pittsburgh’s primary kick returner. Last summer, wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud won that job and performed admirably during the 2020 season. In fact, he earned second-team honors on Pro Football Focus’ midseason All-Pro team and the same distinction on PFF’s year-end list. In 2020, he returned 28 kickoffs for 646 yards, with an average of 23.1 yards per return and a long of 49. He also returned 29 punts (10.3-yard average) with a long of 57 yards.
But this summer, McCloud faces a strong challenge from undrafted free agent wide receiver Mathew Sexton (Eastern Michigan), signed by the Steelers in late March after he impressed at Michigan’s Pro Day on March 24, 2021.
“Matt has had his moments. He’ll have an opportunity to put an exclamation point on his work like a lot of guys will,” Tomlin said on Wednesday, specifically noting that former Steelers return man Stefan Logan punctuated his summer 2009 audition by returning a punt 80 yards for a touchdown during the preseason finale against the Panthers.
Sexton hasn’t had many in-game opportunities this summer, but his résumé—however limited—has been impressive. All told, he has returned three punts for 88 yards (29.3-yard average), including this 47-yarder against the Detroit Lions:
Never mind Sexton’s unflattering new nickname, it’s also worth noting that Tomlin has mentioned him multiple times—unprompted—during training camp press conferences.
For example, after the team’s 16-3 victory over the Cowboys in the Hall of Fame game, Tomlin said: “Sexton had a big [34-yard] punt return. It ignited us. I don’t know that we had done much offensively [up] to then. It was like that was a springboard to us moving forward.”
That makes “Cheddar Bob” worth keeping a close eye on vs. the Panthers.
Game time is 7:30 p.m. ET at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.