Second-guessers had a good time roasting Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin over his decision to allow kicker Shaun Suisham to attempt a go-ahead 54-yard field goal late in last Thursday’s game at Tennessee.
The eighth-year placekicker from Bowling Green State University had hit a 52-yarder earlier in the game, so I didn’t have a problem assuming that fourth-quarter adrenaline could extend Suisham’s range a bit. The 30-year-old was accurate with the kick, but it fell short with 48 seconds left in regulation. The Titans took over from their 44 and promptly drove for the winning field goal from Rob Bironas.
Although his clinching boot against the Steelers was from “only” 40 yards, Bironas, 34, has connected from 50 or longer 21 times in eight seasons, including a career-long 60-yarder. Suisham has a total of five successful kicks from 50-plus yards, and he matched his NFL-best Thursday with a 52-yarder.
Nothing against Suisham, who resurrected his career when the Steelers cut Jeff Reed two years ago, but his range simply isn’t up to modern NFL standards. Just this weekend, 37-year-old Falcons kicker Matt Bryant launched a 55-yard field goal to beat the Raiders. His career peak was a walk-off boot from 62 yards, three feet shy of matching the league record.
Another moment from Sunday that stands out in my head is a 65-yard miss from Rams rookie Greg Zuerlein at the gun. The kick had plenty of distance, but sailed left. If the Steelers were in that position, they’d be attempting a Hail Mary pass. It doesn’t take much to deduce that St. Louis has the edge over Pittsburgh in desperate situations. Zuerlein is already building a legend with makes from 60, 58 and 56 yards on his six-game highlight reel.
Placekicking is often compared to golf, and while the swing mechanics are similar, there is another matching theme: distance dictates potential. A short hitter has to do almost everything right to be successful in golf, while a long-baller can be a little rough around the edges and still produce above-average results. To put it in golf terms, the Steelers have Corey Pavin, while the Rams and other teams have Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson and Tiger Woods.
In essentially every game, the Steelers are outmatched in the kicking category. With the defense struggling and the run game sputtering, special teams could provide a valuable edge. In the tight-as-ever NFL, having a kicker who can connect from midfield could easily turn a game or two in that team’s favor. In a 16-game season, a game or two is often all it takes for a squad to separate itself from the also-rans.
This topic seems especially relevant this fall, with three Steelers games out of five decided by late field goals. Sebastien Janikowski (38 career 50-plus conversions, plus a 63-yarder) won one of those for the Raiders; as the Rams did with Zuerlein, Oakland spent a draft pick to get the “Polish Cannon.” Meanwhile, the Steelers continue to dig in the scrap heap for one of the most important positions in football.
The Steelers have never been accused of being on the cutting edge, so it’s not surprising they are fine with a kicker whose range puts them at a disadvantage in high-leverage situations. Suisham’s career 80.4 percent success rate may have been outstanding 10 or 20 years ago, but it’s not enough to mitigate his lack of range by today’s lofty kicking levels.
In today’s NFL, a kicker can be a true weapon, but the Steelers are content with a cap gun. It’s already cost them one game this season, and that may be enough to keep them out of the playoffs.