Aubrey Bruce: Danny Smith is perfect special teams coach for Steelers

Courier’s Aubrey Bruce speaks one-on-one with longtime coach


 by Aubrey Bruce, For New Pittsburgh Courier

On the next-to-last day of the Steelers’ 2022 “OTAs” (Organized Team Activities), I chatted with Steelers Special Teams Coach Danny Smith. The enthusiastic and fiery personality of Smith has always caused me to smile and think about two other NFL coaches. The first is former Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams Head Coach Dick Vermeil. The other is current Seattle Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll. Oh, I’m sorry, I neglected to mention that both of those gentlemen have a Lombardi Trophy residing at the center of their trophy cases. That common denominator seems to bode well for Danny Smith.

At the beginning of our conversation, I mentioned that special teams could be a positive or negative component on any NFL team in terms of the year-by-year performance of the players assigned to special teams. Smith pointed out that: “It can be a hard evaluation process, especially for new players coming out of college, because college punt coverage is different than NFL punt coverage.”

He continues on: “The footwork, the assignments and the rules of coverage. They’re a lot different in college, so when you get young guys coming in trying to transition to the NFL, they’re trying hard but they’re just working at what they were taught.”

Although many special teamers may be destined for future NFL stardom, Smith says that there is a time-honored process that determines what first-year players or any other players will be placed on special teams. “Those decisions are made after a long training camp and the three preseason games that we play. That is where our evaluation process has an advantage over colleges. Sorting (through) some of that stuff is not the part that’s difficult, it’s teaching them the skill set. Carrying out the details of an assignment at this level sometimes can be difficult. Teams in the NFL have great reputations: not only for special teams that can provide a spark for their offense but for their defense as well.”

We also talked about the occasions that may dictate that a specific game plan to defend against a star wide receiver for the opposing team that might be back to receive punts or kicks. Smith talked about when the offense of the Black and Gold is set to receive the ball and how game plans are created to neutralize an opposing team’s defensive standout that can potentially break up your blocking wedge at best, creating poor field position or at the very worst, create a turnover for the opposition. “It’s about matchups and we have the same stars as they do but the NFL is a game of matchups.”

When Danny Smith refers to matchups, a perfect example that comes to mind for me was a 2007 Monday Night Football matchup between the Steelers and Ravens. In that game, James Harrison had a potential Hall of Fame performance. “Deebo” was simply a walking wrecking ball on defense and special teams that will more than likely never be repeated. He recorded 3.5 sacks, six quarterback hits, three forced fumbles and an interception as the Steelers battered the Ravens, 38-7.

When I reflect on that Steelers/Ravens game, Danny Smiths words are ringing in my ears in an almost prophetic-like fashion…“It’s about matchups and we have the same stars and the NFL is a game of matchups…”

Well in this case it was not about matchups because on that fateful Monday night in 2007 at Heinz Field, the Baltimore Ravens could not in any way, shape or form find a matchup to stop James Harrison. The performance by Harrison also possibly provided a shot in the arm for Steelers’ first-year Head Coach Mike Tomlin. When we push the fast forward button, in January of 2013, Tomlin hired Danny Smith as the Steelers’ Special Teams Coordinator. Since he was hired, Smith, with his wisdom and energy, has become the perfect fit for the Steelers.

Danny Smith recognizes and realizes the “guillotine syndrome” associated with being a special teams coach: “We don’t have the luxury to come back on the next play,” he says in a rather matter-of-fact manner. “Whatever happened on the (previous play) has to be corrected, immediately. We have a one-play series and one shot. We’ve been consistent and will continue to be. You’re always looking for the big play. We created a few of them a year ago, but that don’t mean a damn thing about this year.”

Danny Smith is the perfect man for the almost perfect job in the Pittsburgh Steelers coaching hierarchy. Why? Well, because he is not covertly using his job as a springboard or stepping stone to be elevated to a higher coaching position elsewhere. He is satisfied and proud of his coaching performance, as he should be. He is valued and appreciated by the players, the coaches and the fans. As far as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “university of special teams” is concerned, Coach Danny Smith is not striving to be the, “big man on campus:” Danny Smith is the campus.


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