Steelers get big kick out of special teams
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Bill Hillgrove long ago called them beer can kicks -- the non-returnable kickoffs, or touchbacks. Since Hillgrove added the Steelers broadcast duties to his repertoire, there have been few chances for him to trot out that phrase.
Until Sunday in Cleveland, that is.
Kicker Jeff Reed, who consistently has among the fewest touchbacks on his kickoffs in the National Football League, brought back the beer can kick in a big way. Three of his seven kickoffs were not run out by the Browns' return men and went for touchbacks.
It was an astounding turnaround for Reed and a near perfect day for the revamped Steelers' kicking game, the one new coach Mike Tomlin spent so much time practicing in training camp.
Tomlin emphasized special teams practically since the first time he walked through the doors at the team's UPMC training center and at least his two kickers, Reed and rookie punter Daniel Sepulveda, responded in a big way in the Steelers' 34-7 opening win.
Those three touchbacks by Reed not only were the most he has had in one game, but nearly equaled all of his touchbacks from last season when he had four in 76 kickoffs. That was 5.3 percent of his kicks, or the fourth lowest of anyone in the NFL who kicked off at least 40 times last season.
On the other end, Olindo Mare of Miami led the NFL with 24 touchbacks last season in 64 kickoffs, or 37.5 percent.
In his other three full-time seasons with the Steelers, Reed had five touchbacks in 2005, seven in 2004 and five in 2003.
Other than on kickoffs, Reed has displayed a strong, accurate leg since he joined the Steelers midway through the 2002 season as an undrafted rookie. He made both of his field-goal tries in Cleveland, giving him 17 in a row on the road.
But those three beer can kicks were the main topic of conversation.
"Jeff did a nice job on kickoffs," coach Mike Tomlin noted. "I think we had quite a few touchbacks there."
Reed said it wasn't extra work that provided the newfound thrust on kickoffs, nor a new technique nor more bulk or strength in his right leg.
"Mental," Reed answered.
"I've always been capable of that. Sometimes, I just get out there and try too hard. I did that one kick and it actually worked out in our favor. It could have gone out of bounds, the one that looked like a power squib.
"But, I want to get more consistent. I feel comfortable with field goals and extra points, even on kickoffs. But I want to be more consistent everywhere."
His new approach: "Just be relaxed and not try to kill the ball because I'm strong enough to get it where it needs to be."
Sepulveda also showed why the Steelers spent two draft picks in order to get him on the fourth round this year. He averaged only 37.2 yards on six kicks but none was returned -- five were downed and one a fair catch -- and four were downed inside the 15. Of those four, three were inside the 10 -- one at the 2, another at the 5.
"I thought Dan did a nice job in his first time out as a rookie punter," Tomlin said. "The coverage units were solid."
Just about everything in the kicking game went right -- the Steelers scored first after a botched Browns punt -- except in the return game. Newly acquired veteran return man Allen Rossum, although he looked close to breaking into the open a couple of times, managed just 7 yards on two punt returns and 44 yards on two kickoff returns.
"I would have liked to get Allen a little more room in some instances, but we're a developing football team," Tomlin said. "You can't knock that performance."
First published on September 11, 2007 at 12:00 am
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org