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Steelers mixing up special teams strategy

| Sunday, May 18, 2008

For all the practice time the Steelers devoted to special teams last year, the return didn't come close to matching the investment.

And maybe that's because an immutable truth applies to the critical, if sometimes overlooked, phase of the game, at any level of football.

"Special teams is about 'want-to,' " Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel said.

"Heart," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said, "that's all it is."

The Steelers may not have had enough of either last season as breakdowns on special teams plagued them and ultimately contributed to the ending of it all in a 31-29 playoff loss to the Jaguars.

The Steelers will take a different approach toward special teams this year as they won't spend nearly as much time on them in OTA practices -- which resume Tuesday -- and during training camp.

Coach Mike Tomlin said he hopes to create more of a sense of urgency when the Steelers do work on special teams. There is another reason why Tomlin is de-emphasizing special teams, at least in the amount of practice time spent on them.

"I have a better sense of who we are this season," the second-year coach said. "I wouldn't change a thing in terms of our approach to it last year. We were trying to find new leaders in that phase of the game. The leaders that were there in the past were no longer there."

Indeed, the Steelers were without special-teams standouts such as Sean Morey (free agency), James Harrison (elevated to the starting lineup) and Mike Logan (retirement).

Crunching the numbers
Net punting average and kickoff return average are two of the biggest indicators of how effective special teams units are. Here is a look at how the Steelers have fared recently against their opposition in each category.
Year Steelers Opponents
2007 37.9 38.6
2006 36.7 36.7
2005 34.5 34.7
2004 37.4 36.3
Year Steelers Opponents
2007 22.0 22.6
2006 22.1 22.4
2005 21.6 21.9
2004 21.5 21.6

They still finished tied for eighth in the NFL in net-punting average and the 22.6 yards they surrendered per kickoff return ranked right around the middle of the league. The special teams breakdowns, however, were numerous enough -- Cleveland return man Joshua Cribbs almost sunk the Steelers single-handedly last November at Heinz Field -- that they made coach Bob Ligashesky, who returns for a second season with the team, a lightning rod for fan criticism.

And here is what makes coaching special teams one of the more unenviable jobs in the NFL: a team may have textbook coverage on every kickoff and punt during a game except for one time.

Yet, the one time it doesn't may result in a big play for the opposition, and that essentially wipes out all of the positives a team has done on special teams in a game.

"It definitely is one of the harder jobs I've ever had, but it's a very rewarding job," said Illinois coach Ron Zook, who coached the Steelers' special teams from 1996-98. "You cannot make a mistake, and if you do, it can cost you the game. Really, it teaches you a lot about the game."

One aspect that can make it difficult for coaches to build cohesive special teams units: players that practice them during the offseason and in training camp may not be with the team at the start of the regular season.

Also, even the role players that are a vital part of special teams were most likely stars in college. That means they have limited if any experience playing special teams when they get to the NFL.

"So, you have to coach them," Zook said, "just like you have to coach offense and defense."

No matter how much coaching goes into special teams, there is a prevailing thought that excelling in that aspect of the game has little to do with Xs and Os. That it is about attitude more than it is about angles (i.e. taking proper ones) or anything else that is preached by special teams coaches.

"You have to have your screws loose a little bit," said Keisel, who made his mark on special teams -- literally at times -- before breaking into the starting lineup. "I guess a little crazy is a better word."

Ward compared playing special teams to blocking -- tenacity trumps technique when it comes to doing each well.

"I never had to tackle anybody in college," Ward said, "but I embraced (playing special teams). That's how I was going to make this team, and I made a name for myself."

Ideally, special teams units are comprised of veterans who have carved out a career in the NFL playing them and youngsters who go all-out on special teams for a couple of seasons before graduating to the starting lineup.

In past years, the Steelers had that mix with players such as Keisel and Harrison, who eventually became starters, and veterans such as Morey, Clint Kriewaldt and Chidi Iwuoma.

"We had a good group of guys who were just basically special teams guys that understood how important it was," Keisel said. "I hope some of these young guys can feel that way, too."

The Steelers are counting on it.

Special teams snafus

The Steelers had their share of breakdowns on special teams last season. Here are some notable ones:

at Cardinals -- Less than a minute into the fourth quarter, Steve Breaston returned a punt 73 yards for a touchdown, snapping a 7-7 tie. Arizona beat the Steelers, 21-14, handing them their first loss of the season.

vs. Browns -- Pro Bowler Josh Cribbs returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to give Cleveland a lead. Earlier in the Steelers' 31-28 win, Cribbs returned a kickoff 90 yards, setting up a touchdown.

at Jets -- A line-drive punt by rookie Daniel Sepulveda in overtime was returned 33 yards by Leon Washington. That sets up Mike Nugent's game-winning, 38-yard field goal.

at Rams -- Derek Stanley had kickoff returns of 43 and 49 yards in the first half, setting up St. Louis' first two touchdowns. The Steelers were able to overcome those big plays in a 41-24 win.

vs. Jags -- With the Steelers clinging to a 29-28 lead late in the fourth quarter, Dennis Northcutt returned a line-drive punt 16 yards, giving Jacksonville the ball on its own 49-yard line and leading to Josh Scobee's game-winning field goal. Earlier in the game, Maurice Jones-Drew returned a kickoff 97 yards, setting up a touchdown.

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