October 18, 2021

First Call: Jordan Berry finds new team; Steelers will like this ESPN prediction; Bills Josh Allen ripe for regression? – TribLIVE


Ex-Steelers punter Jordan Berry already has a new job. It comes with an ironic twist.

Steelers fans will like one bold prediction from ESPN.com but probably will hate a second one.

Also, a statistical warning for the Steelers’ opening opponent. And those who remain from the Robert Morris hockey program may be able to draw some inspiration from another team that has gone through a similar situation.

Not for long

Former Steelers punter Jordan Berry wasn’t a free agent very long.

After being released in favor of rookie Pressley Harvin III, the Minnesota Vikings signed Berry to replace Britton Colquitt.

The 31-year-old Berry averaged 44.4 yards per punt with the Steelers, with a career best 45.8 yards last season. Special teams coach Danny Smith said Wednesday that he had never seen Berry punt as well as he did this preseason. But that wasn’t good enough to retain his position.

As for the 36-year-old Colquitt, he spent the past two seasons with the Vikings, averaging 45.1 yards in 2020.

Colquitt’s father, Craig, won two Super Bowl rings as a punter with the Steelers in 1978-79. His brother, Dustin, displaced Berry in Pittsburgh in September 2020. But Berry got that job back in October, only to lose it again this year.

Now he’s taking the other Colquitt’s gig in Minnesota a year later.

Super surprise

ESPN.com published its list of the biggest potential surprises for each NFL team.

It’s one the Steelers fan base will like.

Writer Dan Graziano is pointing at outside linebacker Alex Highsmith. He writes:

Don’t be surprised if: Alex Highsmith has double-digit sacks. … The Steelers expect big things from their 2020 third-round pick, who’ll play the edge rush spot opposite superstar T.J. Watt. While Watt will command a lot of much-deserved attention, Pittsburgh indicates Highsmith is ready to be a full-time starter and make up for the loss of Bud Dupree in free agency.”

Highsmith better be ready to go early because with Stephon Tuitt out for a while — and Watt ramping up for the regular season without having had any contact during the preseason — the Steelers are going to need Highsmith to provide some pressure and cause opposing offenses to slide protection his way on occasion.

Meanwhile, Pittsburghers may not like Graziano’s call for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers quite as much.

Don’t be surprised if … Antonio Brown is the Bucs’ most productive wide receiver. … Brown didn’t show up until Week 9 last season because of his suspension, so it took him a while to get going in the offense. But he was still second on the team with 62 targets over the final eight games — one behind Evans and seven ahead of Godwin. A full offseason together heading into a full season together should only deepen the belief Brady has in Brown’s abilities.

“This is an embarrassment of riches and could certainly vary week to week, but I don’t think it’s right to just assume Brown is the No. 3 there. And if he is, it won’t be by much.”

No one needs to see that come true, do we?

Due for a downturn?

Steelers fans probably would’ve preferred if the team opened against another team besides the defending AFC East champion Buffalo Bills. But the stats crew at 538.com is tossing out some numbers that suggest Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen may be looking at regression in 2021.

The reason? Accuracy. Allen’s completion percentage jumped from 58% in 2019 to 69% in 2020.

However, 538.com warns a return toward the middle may be looming.

as impressive as Allen’s rapid ascent was, it should probably give us pause. Of the 31 players since 2006 to record at least a 5-point improvement in off-target rate, nearly three quarters saw it rise the following season.

“Off-target throws that end in incompletions aren’t the end of the story, though. ‘Off-frame’ passes — passes that were thrown high, low, ahead or behind a target but were still caught — represent another way to quantify Allen’s accuracy. By this measure, 2020 was a banner year for the Bills QB. Allen threw for 10 touchdowns on 58 plays categorized as ‘off the frame’ by the ESPN Stats & Information Group. That compares to just two touchdowns on 46 such plays in 2019. Allen’s 10 TDs in 2020 are tied for second most in a season since 2017 (the first year for which we have data).

“Moreover, Allen’s eight-touchdown increase on off-frame throws accounts for 47 percent of his total year-over-year touchdown improvement.

“Unfortunately for Allen, success on these throws appears to be heavily driven by luck instead of skill. Among Allen’s peers who threw six or more off-frame TDs in a season, 85 percent saw their TD totals fall the next year.”

Does that sound like a lot of statistical mumbo jumbo to you? Well, I’m with you.

However, what numbers would you rather believe? Those stats?

Or 396 of 572 for 4,544 yards and 37 touchdowns versus just 10 interceptions and a 107.2 rating? Because those were Allen’s numbers last year.

Yeah. I’d rather take my chances with option A, too.

Colonials connection

As the fate of the Robert Morris hockey teams remain in limbo until at least December, another NCAA Division I program has been resuscitated.

The University of Alaska Anchorage has announced the Seawolf hockey program has surpassed its fundraising mark of $3 million, resulting in reinstatement for play in the 2022-23 season.

Last August, the school announced four University of Alaska Anchorage Division I sports — gymnastics, hockey, men’s skiing and women’s skiing — were going to be eliminated to save the school $2.5 million per year.

Meanwhile, the Colonials men’s and women’s programs were told in May they’d be cut, only to be informed almost two months later they could stay alive if they met a fundraising goal of $7 million over five years by the end of July.

That window has since been extended until December in hopes of getting the teams back on the ice in 2022-23, but the university dropped the ax on the 2021-22 campaign.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at tbenz@triblive.com or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.