PITTSBURGH – When Shaun Suisham steps onto the field with the game on the line, the Pittsburgh Steelers kicker doesn’t think about the packed stadium or the millions watching at home on TV. He doesn’t worry about the way the wind is blowing or if holder Drew Butler is going to get the laces right.
Instead, Suisham thinks about the sacrifices made by the other 44 players dressed in black-and-gold just so the affable 30-year-old Canadian could step in and be the hero.
“He knows how much work the other guys put into the game to that point and it’s great to be able to put a win on top of it for everybody,” long snapper Greg Warren said.
Something Suisham has gotten pretty good at this fall. He leads the NFL in field goal percentage, making 24 of 25 kicks, and has already drilled three game-winners, including a 42-yarder last Sunday at the gun to beat rival Baltimore on the road.
It’s rarified air for any kicker, though you wouldn’t know it by talking to Suisham. Asked what it means to be in the midst of a career year in a line of work where you’re only as good as your next kick, and all Suisham does is shrug his shoulders.
“It’s my job,” he said.
One that he’s gotten pretty good at. While Suisham doesn’t have the strongest leg in the league – his range is career-long is a relatively modest 52 yards – at the moment he’ll happily settle for the most accurate kicker in the game.
“He’s in a zone right now,” Warren said.
The Steelers (7-5) have needed him to be in a season where there has been little wiggle room. Only three of Pittsburgh’s dozen games have been decided by more than a touchdown, and Suisham’s right foot has provided the difference in victories over Philadelphia, Kansas City and the Ravens.
The kicks against the Eagles (34 yards) and Chiefs (23 yards) were relative gimmes. Baltimore, however, proved a little trickier. Yet his boot from the right hashmark was good all the way and for once the normally reserved Suisham decided to celebrate a little bit, giving a fist pump while getting mobbed by his teammates.
It was a rare show of emotion from a player who has learned to take emotion out of the equation. It’s no easy task in one of the most stressful and disposable positions in the game.
Suisham, however, has found a sweet spot this fall after a bumpy 2011 in which he made just 74 percent (23 of 31) of his kicks. He had to beat out Dan Hrapmann in training camp over the summer and barring a case of the shanks he’ll easily set a personal best in field goals made and field goal percentage.
Not bad for a player who came into the league a little wide-eyed in 2005 and spent the first five seasons of his career bouncing back and forth between Dallas and Washington.
“He’s come a long way,” said Pittsburgh offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who was an assistant with the Cowboys during Suisham’s brief stints in Dallas in 2005 and 2006. “You can see that he’s developed into a heck of a kicker. When those young kickers come into the league, especially you’re in Dallas, you’re coming in to fill in for somebody that didn’t pass the test … that’s a lot of pressure.”
Something Suisham hasn’t gotten used to in Pittsburgh. He provided a steadying presence at the position after replacing an erratic Jeff Reed midway through the 2010 season, making all but one of his 15 field goal attempts.
Things were shakier in the playoffs, where Suisham missed a pair of kicks, including a 52-yarder in the third quarter of a 31-25 loss to Green Bay in the Super Bowl.
Like most perfectionists, it’s the failures that tend to weigh on Suisham’s mind more than the success. Mention how accurate he’s been this year and Suisham notes the one miss – a 54-yarder with 54 seconds remaining that would have given the Steelers the lead in a game they ended up losing 26-23 to Tennessee on Oct. 11.
“I should have made it,” Suisham said.
He hasn’t missed since, one of the main reasons Pittsburgh heads into Sunday’s game against San Diego (4-8) in the hunt for a third straight playoff berth.
“It’s very comforting for everybody involved when you have a kicker you can count on,” Haley said.
Even if Suisham takes nothing for granted, not even the prospect of making his first Pro Bowl. That would put him in elite company and to be honest, he’d rather not think about it.
“I don’t know what I consider myself,” Suisham said. “I’m just trying to make every kick they ask me to kick. I consider myself the best kicker on this team.”