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New special teams coach trying to find right combos for Steelers

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin watches punter Drew Butler and the coverage unit during practice Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, at St. Vincent in Latrobe.

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By Alan Robinson
Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
 

Some football coaches welcome a second chance. Danny Smith usually doesn't.

When Drew Butler's 55-yard punt against the Giants was wiped out by a Marshall McFadden penalty, Smith knew that a second punt by a unit that had just expended itself racing downfield in coverage is worrisome.

“You repeat a punt, you're asking for problems,” Smith said.

The problem on Butler's second punt was that Damon Cromartie-Smith released before making his block, allowing Giants rookie Damontre Moore a wide-open lane to leap and block Butler's punt. The Giants managed only a field goal, but it was an embarrassing play for Smith, who returned to his hometown in the job he always wanted.

“You want to block them first,” Smith said. “You know that they want to go down the field, but you tell them there's nothing to go downfield for if you don't block them.”

Smith will try to block out that image — and that of a muffed punt later in the preseason opener — as he gets a second chance Monday night to prove that the Steelers' special teams will be improved greatly this season.

The starters will play about one quarter at FedEx Field against the Redskins, who employed Smith as their special teams coordinator for the last nine seasons. Who starts at running back — Le'Veon Bell, Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer — is likely to be a game-time decision.

Smith might have returned to Pittsburgh before now, but another kind of block kept him in Washington; in 2010, the Redskins blocked the Steelers' attempt to talk to Smith. The Redskins relented last winter and allowed the Steelers to hire him to replace Amos Jones.

Special teams have been a Steelers concern for years — they've ranked above 17th overall twice in the last seven seasons — and they believed they finally had the right man for the job.

But a new coach needs time to evaluate his personnel — he's coaching dozens of players, not a handful as most position coaches do — and Smith is still in the early stages of that job. And that might have shown up against the Giants.

Smith is aware of the dangers of a block. The Redskins had five field goal attempts and an extra point attempt blocked in 2011 and two punts blocked last season.

“We're mixing and matching a lot of guys. And that's hard. It's not only hard on me, it's hard on them, to be honest with you,” Smith said. “When you start playing next to a guy, you get a feel for the other. But when you're trying to find those fits, it's difficult. It's a process.”

Smith will try a number of combinations against the Redskins, including LaRod Stephens-Howling returning kickoffs and rookie Markus Wheaton returning punts. Both could wind up staying in those jobs when the season opens.

“We're moving guys, trying to find the right matchups,” Smith said. “We're doing it with gunners, we're doing it with returners, we're doing it with protection and return front line, jammers outside, return guys. Everybody.”

Including the punters. Butler, who won the job as a rookie last season, is competing with 12-year veteran Brian Moorman, who was promoted to co-starter status after the Giants game.

The 24-year-old Butler averaged 43.8 yards last season to the 37-year-old Moorman's 44.2 for the Bills and Cowboys. If the Steelers keep Moorman, they might have to go looking for a punter again next season because of his age.

“I like the competition, and it makes us all better, but you'd like to know who your guy is, and we're not ready to make that decision,” Smith said. “We haven't put a timetable on it and haven't talked to (coach) Mike (Tomlin) about it yet.”

There's no such worry with the kicker. Shaun Suisham is coming off a 28-of-31 (90.3 percent) showing on field goals last season and is showing off an even stronger leg during training camp.

If only all such special teams decisions were so easy.

“I think the guys we pick will be the right guys because I think a lot of guys can play,” Smith said. “I think a lot of guys who are Pittsburgh Steelers (now) will play on other teams (after getting cut), and that's a good situation. We have good personnel; it's a matter of me matching them up properly.

“We'll get better as we go along.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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