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Starkey: Steelers must find their edge

Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2009

Mike Tomlin might as well have worn a white coat and stethoscope to his weekly news conference.

The session went into overtime, just like the Chiefs game, and took on a decidedly medical tone. Ben Roethlisberger's concussion, Charlie Batch's broken wrist and Dennis Dixon's promotion from emergency quarterback all were hot issues.

Roethlisberger is expected to start Sunday night in Baltimore. Steelers fans better hope he plays better than he did coming off a concussion in 2006, when he went to Oakland and had the most calamitous game of his career. He was so bad you wondered if he was playing through lingering symptoms.

Even if Big Ben is clear-headed, this team has serious issues. Or, as Dr. Tomlin put it, "some ills that are very apparent."

Playing in Baltimore might help, for if any team can sharpen the Steelers' dulled edge, it's the Ravens.

"That medicine," Tomlin declared, "is just what the doctor ordered."

So is a closer look at the symptoms. Let's start where the Chiefs did — by ripping the special teams.

I was astonished when Tomlin hired Bob Ligashesky as his special teams coach in 2007 and remain so, despite last year's success.

Ligashesky's resume included spotty tenures at Pitt and with the St. Louis Rams:

· In 2003, Pitt's special teams finished 116th out of 117 Division I-A teams in kickoff coverage, and last in the Big East in returns.

· In 2006, the Rams had the NFL's 28th-ranked kick coverage unit and allowed an NFL-worst three returns (one punt, two kickoffs) for touchdowns.

Ligashesky hardly is alone among the special-teams culprits. Jeff Reed lost a game in Chicago; Daniel Sepulveda failed at critical times the past two weeks (touchback in overtime included); and return man Stefan Logan has yet to alter the course of a game.

And remember, it was Ligashesky's bosses who elected to revamp a kickoff coverage unit that finished first in the NFL last season. The biggest move was releasing Anthony Madison, who was set to make $1.01 million after leading the team with 25 special-teams tackles.

Maybe the Steelers' reluctance to invest in special teams set the tone for what we're seeing now.

At least Tomlin finally is open to playing more starters on his coverage units. Previously, he'd said using the likes of James Harrison would merely be a "Band-Aid."

That was a far cry from the "all-hands-on-deck" mentality Tomlin once espoused.

Meanwhile, a man wheeling a suitcase was seen walking the hallways with Ligashesky yesterday. I'm guessing it was a potential special-teams pick-up and not a traveling medic, because Tomlin said several such players are being auditioned. (Two were signed — linebacker Rocky Boiman and cornerback Corey Ivy.)

As for the team's other two units, Tomlin reminded us that his defense is ranked No. 1 and his offense sixth.

Who cares• Neither has delivered late in games as consistently as it did last season.

Talk all you want about how the pass-happy offense and the dysfunctional special teams have made it tough on the defense. That is no excuse for repeated late-game lapses.

It's like the baseball scenario where a closer blows a save and all anyone talks about is how the game was lost in the first and fifth innings, when the middle of the order left the bases loaded.

What does that have to do with the closer's job?

Somehow, somewhere, the Steelers have lost their winning edge. You have to wonder if Tomlin's approach, most notably a tame training camp and a bye-week vacation of unprecedented proportions, has contributed.

In his first year, Tomlin overworked his players. Troy Polamalu was among those who later said a harsh training camp contributed to a late-season swoon.

Could it be that the coach went too far in the opposite direction this season?

Tomlin promised yesterday to be "very aggressive" in seeking to cure the ills. Perhaps he should consider how a recent case of Steelers malaise was remedied.

Back in 2005, after his team dropped to 7-5, Bill Cowher re-invigorated daily practice by putting his team in full pads. For the rest of the season, practice (and games) took on a markedly different and desperate tone.

Indeed, the switch to full pads was just what the doctor ordered.




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