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Special Teams are a little less special

By Jeff Snedden
August 16, 2011

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The View from Section 121: A blog by Jeff Snedden, SCM# 3022
There may be no fan base in the NFL who understands the importance of solid special teams play more than our very own Steeler Nation. The Steelers have experienced major issues on kick coverage teams all the way back to the Coach Cowher era. In 2009, coming off the Super Bowl XLIII win, Coach Tomlin experienced the Steelers special teams curse in full effect, as no less than 5 kickoffs/punts were returned for Touchdowns in games vs. Pittsburgh. Guys like Bernard Scott, Percy Harvin, and Steeler killer Joshua Cribbs all returned key kicks for TDís that season.
Had special teams shown up early in 2009, there is a great possibility the Steelers would have been able to defend their Super Bowl Championship that year. The season ended in 2009 with no playoff berth, and much of the blame can go to bad special teams play. No single play in any football game can change the momentum of a game more than a kickoff or punt return for a TD. In 2009, the Steelers began to realize that and started to look for players to plug in on coverage teams to stop what had become a major flaw in an otherwise championship-level team. Players such as Anthony Madison, Keyaron Fox, Nick Eason, and Patrick Bailey were brought in to shore up the holes in coverage for the return game. Unfortunately for the Steelers, games against Kansas City and Cincinnati were lost in part due to kickoff return TDs by Jamaal Charles and Bernard Scott. These two games, both losses for Pittsburgh, were the nails in the coffin for 2009. The Steelers made a valiant late-season effort to make the playoffs, but could not overcome these back to back losses in Weeks 10 and 11.
Kickoff and punt return coverage is a tough nut to crack for NFL coaching staffs, as teams have continued a recent trend of drafting and developing certain players as simple return men. Gone are the days when only a few teams employed these special players, such as Mel Gray with Detroit, or Eric Metcalf with Cleveland. Now it seems that every team in the league has in its employ a career return man, a player who dominated the return game in college and is on a roster in the NFL to do the same. These players lie in wait for their opportunity to change the game, and if the coverage is not there, they can break off a 90-yard TD quick enough to steal both the momentum and scoreboard from their opposition.
In 2011, the Steelers will face off against numerous players who fit this bill. While the special teams coverage was adequate in 2010, the Steelers have since lost numerous role players from those coverage units in Free Agency. Players such as LB Keyaron Fox and CB Anthony Madison were integral pieces of those units, making plays that do not show up in the box scores. Both of those players have moved on, either by their choice, or because the roster just didnít allow for them to be invited to camp. What effect will their loss have on the special teams coverage units for 2011?
The players stepping into these roles are unknown commodities. OLB Jason Worilds, DB Cortez Allen, DB Keenan Lewis, and ILB Stevenson Sylvester will all play pivotal roles in the success or failure of these units. Will the Steelers face a drop off in the quality of these teams? Will the young players be able to step up and play the kick coverage game, when most of them havenít played key special teams positions since their early college careers? Coach Tomlin and Special Teams Coordinator Al Everest will have their hands full replacing the losses of Fox and Madison.
This time of the year, it is normal to hear most of the media and fans concentrating on the bigger issues, and the fantasy football-type stats that seem to drive the majority of fans out there. When the chips are down, however, it will be the Special Teams who determine whether or not this elite team has another shot at Lombardi #7 in 2011.

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