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Old 11-23-2006, 07:12 AM   #1
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Default Special teams, special circumstances

Special teams, special circumstances

By Mike Prisuta
Thursday, November 23, 2006

If Bill Cowher is serious about improving the Steelers' special teams that have been a consistent disappointment, he'll do more than contemplate a radical shakeup.
After considering "anything and everything," as Cowher has vowed, he should turn to starters Brett Keisel, Troy Polamalu and Hines Ward on special teams against the Ravens.

In a must-win game such as the one the Steelers will play Sunday in Baltimore, they'll have nothing to lose in risking such a departure from policy.

Keisel, a starting defensive end for the first time this season, was one of the Steelers' most productive and most heavily relied upon special teamers in 2005, along with linebackers Clint Kriewaldt and James Harrison, wide receiver Sean Morey and cornerback Chidi Iwuoma.

But this season, Iwuoma was released, Keisel was removed from the punt and kickoff coverage teams, and Harrison missed five games with an ankle injury.

The Steelers also received significant special-teams contributions from cornerbacks Tyrone Carter and Ricardo Colclough and safety Mike Logan a year ago.

This year, Colclough was returning punts for some reason until suffering a season-ending neck injury Sept. 24 against Cincinnati.

The changes have been subtle yet significant, which helps explain why the Steelers have yielded kickoff returns of 51 (San Diego), 51 (Atlanta), 50 (Oakland), 43 (New Orleans) and a 92-yards return for a touchdown this past Sunday against Cleveland.

The Steelers are last in the NFL in opponents' average starting point following a kickoff -- the 31.6-yard line.

That's as unacceptable as it has been damaging.

Time to fire up Keisel The Diesel, who led the Steelers with 23 special-teams stops a year ago.

Polamalu, the starting strong safety, also would upgrade the kickoff and punt coverage. The Steelers have no one better at finding the ball, closing in a hurry and blowing up a play.

The added responsibility would put a physical strain on Polamalu, who has already battled a shoulder injury and a concussion this season, as it would Keisel.

So be it.

The Steelers are desperate enough that they have to commit to actually trying "anything and everything," rather than merely considering such alternatives.

In this instance that also includes asking Ward to return punts.

He returned one for two yards in 1999 and hasn't returned another. But in the event any doubts lingered regarding Ward being the Steelers' best option with the ball in his hands in space, the remarkable catch-and-run touchdowns he scored in Atlanta and against New Orleans ought to have resolved those.

As for the guys they've already tried this year returning punts, Colclough was a disaster, Santonio Holmes can't be trusted to secure the ball, Willie Reid has probably missed too much time to be able to quickly regain his form, and Cedrick Wilson appeared capable only of catching the ball, as opposed to advancing it, during his stint as the deep man against Denver.

The Steelers are 30th in punt returns with a 5.7 average.

The Ravens, conversely, are traditionally among the NFL's best on special teams across the board. They can inflict damage with more than just return specialist B.J. Sams.

Amid such circumstances, the Steelers can't afford to go with a status quo that hasn't been good enough all along.

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