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Special teams slipping for Steelers

| Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2012, 11:34 p.m.
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The Steelers' Chris Rainey showed big-play ability on returns during the preseason but hasn't done much in the first three regular-season games. (Getty Images)

Nearly six weeks since taking the unusual step of firing their special teams coordinator only two weeks before they opened the season, the Steelers are getting below-the-line play from their special teams.

They aren't defending kicks well, aren't returning them for any great distance and, except for kicker Shaun Suisham, are worse than average in almost every statistical category.

That's not necessarily a reflection on Amos Jones, the former assistant special teams coordinator who was moved up when Al Everest was let go in late August. But it illustrates how the Steelers have yet to solve a problem that surfaces almost every season, much like the constant shuffling that occurs along the offensive line on a near-annual basis.

Asked about his special teams' performance to date, coach Mike Tomlin said, “We're 1-2, and the special teams are, as well.”

Suisham has made all five of his field-goal attempts, but the kicking game has become so good in the NFL that such a level of performance is expected, not a surprise. Nearly half of the league's kickers have yet to miss, most with more attempts than Suisham, and only seven kickers have missed as many as twice.

Rookie punter Drew Butler's 41.4 average is the NFL's second-lowest, although his 38.4 net ranks 19th, and he has five punts inside the 20. Coaches often judge punters more by their ability to put the ball down close to the goal line than they do their overall average.

Antonio Brown averages a Pro Bowl-level 11 yards on five punt returns. But the Steelers' 23.2 average on kickoff returns is only 24th, and their opponents are averaging a healthy 33.2 yards, second-highest in the league.

While the Steelers haven't had a kickoff return longer than 27 yards, their opponents have five of 26 yards or longer, topped by Mike Goodson's 51-yarder for Oakland.

“One of most important things you see when you have breakout runs is people not staying within their job or in their lanes,” cornerback Cortez Allen said. “You've got to keep contain. That's within the defense, too; you have to stay true to what your assignment is.”

The kick-coverage units could be helped by the return of linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, who missed the first three games with a knee injury.

What the Steelers are missing is a game-changing element in their kicking game, one that Brown could provide if he starts breaking off some long returns. Chris Rainey also showed during the preseason that he can be a threat, but he has returned only one punt so far.

Brown is fielding any punts that might land close to the goal line, most likely so Rainey doesn't make a mistake that could lead to a critical turnover.

“That's the same as the regular offense,” said Rainey, who also isn't carrying the ball in such situations. “If anything happens, I just have to be ready for it, that's all. I have to stay ready.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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