Harris: Put Harrison, Keisel on special teams

| Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2009

As a concession to potential injury and their status on the team, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin relieved Pro Bowl outside linebacker James Harrison and starting defensive end Brett Keisel of important special teams responsibilities.

It's time for Tomlin to stop being Mr. Nice Guy and return Harrison and Keisel to the trenches with the other special teams grunts.

It was 2007 all over again for the Steelers during Sunday's special teams meltdown in a critical 18-12 loss to Cincinnati at Heinz Field.

Only this time it wasn't Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs returning kickoffs for 100 and 90 yards in the same game, or Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew's backbreaking kickoff return in the AFC Wild Card playoff game.

Pin this loss on the special teams for allowing another kickoff return for a touchdown, the third kickoff returned for a score against the Steelers in four games.

If Tomlin truly believes special teams are just as important as his offense and defense, he'll shake up the lineup before Sunday's game at Kansas City.

"It's something we've worked on, something that obviously we're aware of and it just seems to keep happening,'' Keisel said. "I'm sure coach Tomlin is going to address it and I'm sure some moves are going to be made. Who knows• I might be at (my old position) again.''

Tomlin took the first step when he replaced Stefan Logan with rookie Mike Wallace after Logan returned yet another kickoff deep in the end zone and failed to reach the 20-yard line.

Why stop there• Super Bowl XLIII MVP Santonio Holmes returned a punt for a touchdown against Carolina in his rookie season. Holmes' most important punt return went for a 67-yard touchdown against San Diego in last year's divisional playoff game.

Holmes wants to return punts full time, but Tomlin won't let him.

The return teams need proven playmakers like Holmes.

Said Logan, a free agent from the Canadian Football League who was stripped of the ball on a punt return against San Diego this season that resulted in a touchdown: "I put a lot of pressure on myself because we've had three kickoffs run back on us.''

The kickoff team needs bigger and faster athletes like Harrison and Keisel, who were longtime special teams mainstays. Starting inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons should also return to special teams, joining starting cornerbacks Ike Taylor and William Gay, who are already on the kickoff team.

It's no coincidence that the performance of the special teams has slacked off since the departure of Harrison, Keisel and Timmons.

Sure, it's a gamble to play starters on special teams because of the injury risk. Football is a violent enough sport as it is. Allowing key starters to also play special teams is the NFL's version of Russian roulette.

However, the Steelers can't afford to lose any more games because of poor special teams play.

Watching kicker Jeff Reed run away from making tackles on kickoff returns is comic relief at best, six points at worst.

But seeing players who are paid to only play special teams getting blown up at the point of attack, not getting through blocks and not putting the opposing return man on the ground can have a devastating effect on the rest of the team.

"You can't quite put your finger on it right now. You watch the tape, guys are giving effort,'' backup linebacker and special teams captain Keyaron Fox said. "We're just not getting to the ball, we're not tackling the football.''

Kickoffs returned for touchdowns are momentum-changers. The Steelers never recovered from Jones-Drew's return that set up a short touchdown run during their playoff loss two years ago. In Sunday's game, the Steelers never led following rookie Bernard Scott's 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter.

Defensive captain James Farrior said the failure of the special teams falls on everyone.

"It's not just special teams. It's offensive players and defensive players out there. We've all got to be held accountable,'' Farrior said.

Sorry. I'll accept Farrior's explanation when the Steelers' special teams is blamed for the defense giving up points. It's Tomlin's responsibility to put his best special teams players on the field and that hasn't been the case this season.

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