Special teams boost for Steelers
LATROBE, Pa. – Danny Smith’s voice is a wreck. Already. A week into training camp, the new Pittsburgh Steelers special teams coach’s folksy drawl has already been reduced to a raspy whisper.
Except, of course, when he’s working.
For all the agony Smith puts his vocal chords through on the practice field, it never deserts him when he’s got a whistle around his neck and a football in his hands. Then, almost magically, the rasp is replaced by a steady roar that thunders off the dormitories at Saint Vincent College.
“It’s a wonderful thing,” Smith said. “The dear Lord gave me an opportunity to get (my voice) back quite often and fast. I don’t really know why. I never studied that. I’ve just been lucky.”
He’s also been loud. Smith coaches at a volume that attempts to command order out of the chaos. During his more than three decades on the sidelines the 59-year-old Smith has coached everything from running backs to tight ends. Yet he’s found a home running the part of the game that is often left to the wind or the bounce of an oblong ball.
It’s a position that comes with its own set of neuroses. During his nine-year stay with the Washington Redskins from 2004-12, Smith would pace frantically during warmups out of fear he’d see a bad kick that would sense his heart rate soaring.
“If you hit one bad punt in pregame or missed a field goal in pregame, he’d be all over the top of you,” Redskins punter Sav Rocca said. “He’d get too stressed and think ‘Why the hell have we got this guy here for if he can’t hit a punt in pregame’ sort of thing.”
Eventually, Smith decided to hide in the locker room until opening kickoff. Not that it does much to calm him down. Out in the middle of a stadium, Smith doesn’t have much need for calm anyway. Last he checked it’s not part of the job description.
What is part of the job description is finding a mix of players at various parts of their career to work together for a common goal. It’s the part of the job that Smith loves the most. Nobody comes into the NFL wanting to play special teams, but everybody from rookies looking for a roster spot to veterans holding onto the last threads of their careers will find their way into Smith’s meetings.
That’s where he’s at his best, histrionics aside.
“I just have a passion,” Smith said. “I feel like I’m a good communicator. I feel like I’ve got good leadership skills. It’s just I take great pride in coaching and teaching and seeing that stuff on the field and getting guys in successful situations.”
Even if the instances can sometimes be hard to come by. One wrong shove on a punt return here, one missed blocking assignment on a field goal attempt there can shift the whole momentum of a game. The fact Smith survived nine seasons – under three different head coaches – in Washington speaks to his commitment. It’s why the Steelers didn’t hesitate to scoop him up, returning Smith to his hometown after a nomadic 30 years in the business.
The move also reunites Smith with kicker Shaun Suisham, who evolved from just another leg in camp into an NFL lifer thanks in part to Smith’s energetic guidance. Suisham earned his first full-time job with the Redskins in 2007 and is coming off the best year of his career. He made 28 of 31 field goals last year, including a couple of game-winners.
The moment Suisham ran into Smith when organized team activities began in May, it was as if they’d only seen each other a week ago. Call it a testament to the relationship Smith tries to cultivate with every player at his disposal.
Is it easy to get caught up in the show Smith puts on? Of course. After awhile, though, the players grow to appreciate Smith’s depth of knowledge and his emotional investment in their own development.
“All the yelling and running around, that’s Danny Smith, but when you watch him do that stuff, watch the players around him and how well they relate to him,” Suisham said. “All the guys are involved, locked in, listening and learning, following his direction.”
Smith wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s at the point in his life where becoming a head coach is no longer an option. Neither, really, is becoming an offensive or defensive coordinator. That’s fine. Smith is only too happy to continue to noisily toiling away at his work. Unlike a position coach or a coordinator, Smith’s gig allows him to interact with just about everybody on the roster.
“I wouldn’t be a good quarterback coach,” said Smith, who did mentor Hall of Famer Dan Marino during his high school career at Pittsburgh Central Catholic in the late-1970s. “I don’t want to be in a room with three guys. That would be hard for me. I want them all. That’s the only way I can do it without being the bossman.”
And when he’s in the middle of a drill, Smith is most definitely in charge.
Though he’ll turn 60 two days before the season opener against Tennessee, Smith does not hesitate to get his hands on players barely a third of his age. He’s well aware a nudge here and a push there can mean the difference between a penalty and paradise.
“The speed of the leader determines the rate of the pack,” Smith said. “I’m going to determine the rate of this pack and on the field they’re gonna take over.”
NOTES: CB Cortez Allen, who had minor knee surgery last week, said he is feeling better but isn’t sure when he’ll return to practice. … The Steelers practiced without pads for the first time since last Monday, snapping a stretch of six straight padded workouts with at least one period of live tackling. The team is off Tuesday. … Nose tackle Alameda Ta’amu (hamstring) was activated from the physically unable to perform list and he practiced Monday. . CB Curtis Brown will have an ankle injury further evaluated. . Mike Adams practiced at left tackle and Marcus Gilbert right tackle, switching positions for the fourth straight day.