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|09-22-2010, 06:59 AM||#1|
A Son of Martha
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Steelers' special teams show renewed vigor
Steelers' special teams show renewed vigor
By Scott Brown
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Al Everest makes an interesting pitch when selling the idea of playing special teams.
"I tell (players) you don't have to pay 40 dollars to go to the park and ride the roller coaster," the Steelers' special teams coordinator said. "Just go play special teams and let it all hang out."
Because the Steelers have not held anything back, they have avoided the roller-coaster ride that their special teams provided — and not in a good way — a year ago.
Those units have been overshadowed by a punishing defense, but they cannot be overlooked when it comes to the Steelers' 2-0 start.
A kickoff return has provided one of the two touchdowns the Steelers have scored. And the Steelers have done such a solid job of covering kickoffs that opponents have started, on average, inside their own 22.
"Night and day from what it was last year until now," outside linebacker James Harrison said of the Steelers' special teams.
Indeed, the Steelers are standing out on special teams for the right reasons — unlike in 2009.
They yielded four touchdowns on kickoff returns last season, which contributed to the Steelers missing the playoffs.
Their kick-coverage unit became so porous that Harrison volunteered to play special teams, an area where he excelled before blossoming into one of the best pass rushers in the NFL.
Last January, Harrison challenged the Steelers' special teamers and coaches, saying at the Pro Bowl, "I think it's all about want-to effort and then putting guys in the right positions they should be to make the most of out of their capabilities."
After the Steelers' special teams generated several big plays in a 19-11 win over the Titans on Sunday, Harrison said, "We're the ones getting scores now."
The Steelers' only touchdown of the game came on Antonio Brown's 89-yard kickoff return after he took a reverse handoff from Mewelde Moore.
What excited coach Mike Tomlin just as much as the execution on the play was that several rookies loomed large in it.
In addition to Brown, a finalist for NFL Rookie of the Week, linebacker Stevenson Sylvester threw a block that helped spring the wide receiver the first time he touched the ball in an NFL regular-season game.
"When you get young guys making plays for you," Tomlin said, "it's encouraging."
That has been a theme on special teams through the first two games.
Sylvester leads the Steelers with four special teams tackles, and rookie outside linebacker Jason Worilds notched three of them in the regular-season opener.
Sylvester also forced a fumble on a Titans kickoff return that special teams captain Keyaron Fox recovered.
The former Utah star has, in fact, looked so promising that the Steelers may have upgraded when they released special teams ace Patrick Bailey during final cuts and kept the player who goes by the nickname of "Sly."
Contributions the Steelers have gotten from their rookies validate, in one way, the strategy they employed during the NFL Draft in April.
They took players such as the 6-foot-2, 262-pound Worilds and the 6-2, 231-pound Sylvester because, Tomlin said at the time, their body types and athleticism usually translate well when it comes to special teams.
"Those guys were making plays for us since the preseason, a lot of plays that people probably didn't see," starting cornerback Bryant McFadden said of the rookies. "You'd watch film and see them doing positive things. That's why they're here with us and getting an opportunity to show what they can do on Sundays. That's now what we're expecting."
The Steelers haven't been perfect on special teams.
Will Allen couldn't hang onto an onside kick late in the Titans' game, though Tomlin said Allen made the right play when he charged the ball before it had traveled 10 yards. And punter Daniel Sepulveda has averaged only 36.8 yards a kick and has three touchbacks.
The biggest caveat, however, when it comes to the Steelers' special teams success is that the season is still in its infancy.
What cannot be disputed is that the Steelers have gotten early returns on the renewed emphasis they have placed on special teams.
"To me, I look at it as a great opportunity for a guy to play the game of football at the highest speed and at the highest level," Everest said.
Scott Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-481-5432.
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