Steelers seek solution to kick-coverage woes
James Harrison signed the most lucrative contract by a defensive player in Steelers history last April.
The $50 million man, however, is not above the kind of grunt work he regularly performed — Harrison excelled on the Steelers' kick coverage teams — before becoming one of the most feared linebackers in the NFL.
"If that's something they would call on me to do, then I would gladly go out there and do it," Harrison said of reprising his role as a heat-seeking missile on kickoffs and punts. "I don't think we're in that dire of a situation yet."
The Steelers do have to shore up a kickoff coverage unit that ranked first in the NFL last season but has been gashed for touchdowns in the past two games. And the sooner the better, as far as coach Mike Tomlin is concerned.
One of the keys to the Steelers beating the Broncos tonight is containing Denver return man Eddie Royal. The second-year pro returned a kickoff and a punt for a touchdown in a win over San Diego last month, becoming only the 11th player in NFL history to accomplish that feat in a game.
Concern over Royal, who is seventh in the NFL in punt returns (11.8 yards per return), explains why the Steelers used some of their extra practice time last week working on separation drills.
In such drills, members of the kick coverage teams work on getting downfield as quickly as possible and shedding blocks while staying in position to make a tackle.
Doing the same in games is easier said than done for several reasons, not the least of which is playing special teams requires a mix of discipline yet reckless abandon. And if one player gets knocked out of his lane or strays from it, it can provide the kind of opening that returners such as Royal are so adept at exploiting.
"The biggest problem you have with staying in your lane is people standing in your lane," said Keyaron Fox, a special teams co-captain. "You've just got to beat your block, and it's technique once you beat your block."
The Steelers have not been nearly as good as doing that on kickoff returns as they were a year ago. The Steelers are giving up 24.5 yards per return this season, compared to 19.1 in 2008.
There have been mitigating circumstances to that spike in average.
The Steelers were missing Andre Frazier, a key special teams player, in their past two games because of a thigh contusion.
And the players to which the Steelers yielded touchdowns in those games — the Vikings' Percy Harvin and the Browns' Joshua Cribbs — are arguably the top two kickoff returners in the NFL.
Najeh Davenport and Gary Russell, they are not.
Explosive kick returners are a valued commodity in the league because of how quickly they can change field position and momentum in a game.
The Steelers serve as an example of how coveted those players are. Stefan Logan won a roster spot this season because of his return ability in the kicking game.
Speedsters such as Logan, who can cut as quickly as they accelerate, make it more important than ever for those players on kick coverage teams to play aggressively yet smart.
"Anybody can run around a block, run way out of their lane," said Frazier, who is slated to play against the Broncos. "But then that opens up seams and then somebody else has to overcompensate if you're not doing what you're supposed to do, and then that's how big plays happen."
When asked if the Steelers' kickoff coverage team has been unfairly judged because of two big plays it has yielded, linebacker Patrick Bailey said, "You are what you put on tape."
What the tape usually shows, Tomlin said, is that there is not an appreciable difference in a returner getting dumped deep in his own territory — or leaving a series of would-be tackles in his wake on the way to the end zone.
"You've be surprised at how close each individual kick is to going to the house," Tomlin said. "That's just the National Football League."
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