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Old 01-12-2009, 11:10 AM   #1
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Default Special teams look a little more special

Steelers Notebook: Special teams look a little more special
Monday, January 12, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


The vastly improved Steelers special teams turned past playoff gaffes in their favor yesterday, although they were not without some faults of their own.

Santonio Holmes returned a punt 67 yards for a touchdown, a team playoff record. William Gay recovered a punted ball that bounced off the top of the helmet of San Diego blocker Eric Weddle.

"We had a couple of -- ha! -- adverse situations," Chargers linebacker Shaun Phillips said. "Punts bouncing off people's heads, tipped passes for interceptions, those are things that happened to us all season."

The Steelers have lost recent playoff games because of special teams mistakes. New England returned a punt for a touchdown and a blocked field goal for a touchdown to win the AFC title game after the 2001 season. Jacksonville used a 96-yard kickoff return last season to help beat them by two points.

The Steelers did allow a 63-yard kickoff return by Darren Sproles yesterday, but their defense quickly negated it the next play with Larry Foote's interception. And their first fake punt of the season fell flat with a 4-yard loss.

Still, nothing in the game was bigger for the Steelers than Holmes' touchdown return that tied the score after the Chargers jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead.

"We had a great deal of respect for their punt return team," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We talked during the week that we had to make their strength potential weaknesses. We felt like [punter Mike Scifres] was going to kick the ball down the field, but if we hustled and got bodies on bodies, we would have some vertical grass with Santonio.

"We worked at it and talked about it. It happened for us; it happened at a big time."

Big Ben, big foot
Ben Roethlisberger did something yesterday he has not done since his rookie season. He punted.

The punt ended the Steelers' first series, on fourth-and-8 at the San Diego 34. Tomlin did not want to have Jeff Reed try what would have been a 52-yard field goal, so he had his offense line up as if it would go for it.

Roethlisberger, who punted twice in 2004, lined up in a shotgun, then dropped a little farther back and punted. It was a good one, 25 yards and downed on the 9.

Roethlisberger, a righty when he throws, punts with his left foot.

"It was one of those things that we put in two or three years ago and we brought it back out," Roethlisberger said. "Just kick it down there and hope they don't return it."

Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie once returned a missed field goal for a touchdown, another reason Tomlin did not want to try the long field goal in a cold, windy game.

"I have seen that highlight," Tomlin said.

Tomlin, the aggressor
Tomlin said he wanted to be aggressive, which is why he went with a fake punt that lost 4 yards and ordered a run on fourth down at San Diego's 1 that Carey Davis did not make.

And ... "It helps when you have the kind of defense that we have," Tomlin said. "We have a ways to go in regards to those situations. We have had more failures than successes."

They were much more successful inside San Diego's 20 this time around than they were Nov. 16, when the Chargers held them out of the end zone altogether. The Steelers scored touchdowns four of the five times they made it inside the 20.

Ward moves up
Hines Ward moved past Lynn Swann into second place in Steelers postseason history. He has 966 yards after 70 yesterday on four catches. Swann had 907. John Stallworth leads with 1,054.

Ward, with 71 receptions, is the team's career playoff leader.

Injury free
The Steelers came out of the game relatively healthy, reporting no injuries. No player left the game because of injury.

"We had a couple bumps and bruises along the way, but nothing that is noteworthy at this point," coach Tomlin said.

Balancing act
The Steelers' success running the ball in the victory against San Diego was due in large part to sticking to a plan all game to do exactly that.

"[The coaches] gave us an opportunity to run out of different formations," right tackle Max Starks said. "They gave us a chance and let us run the ball. You have to be able to run and pass effectively and we did that today."

The Steelers tried 42 running plays yesterday and attempted 27 passes. That balance led to 35 points, 28 from the offense, and 342 total yards.

Part of that, Starks explained, comes from the offensive line starting to come together as a unit. He can remember a time when he was a starting left tackle on the Super Bowl XL champion Steelers and the importance of the line play that season.

"Our line stayed intact then," he said. "We played nearly the entire season together and a couple of guys missed a couple of games.

"But this year, Darnell [Stapleton] came in after the fourth game, and I came in after the fifth. It takes time to play together and get to know what the guy next to you is doing, but we're doing that faster than some teams. It can take a year or so for that to happen sometimes."

The Steelers have just one starter from their offensive line of a year ago, right tackle Willie Colon. Stapleton replaced Kendall Simmons after the latter injured his Achilles' tendon in the fourth game of the season, and Starks replaced starter Marvel Smith at left tackle when Smith injured his back.

"Our offensive line played well," Tomlin said. "That group wanted to ante up and they did this game."

One ugly bird
After two tough games during the regular season against the division-rival Ravens, both Steelers victories, the players, as well as Tomlin, didn't put much stock in using those instances to look ahead to game three in the AFC championship game Sunday at Heinz Field.

"It'll be a hard-hitting, low-scoring game," All-Pro linebacker James Harrison said.

Wide receiver Santonio Holmes, whose controversial late touchdown reception led to a 13-9 victory against the Ravens Dec. 14 in Baltimore, said that play is motivation enough for the Ravens.

"I'm sure that play will be shown a lot this week," he said. "I'm sure they thought it was a bad call, but it is what it is. Those guys will come in pumped up and we'll be pumped up, too."

"There's a big, black, ugly bird standing between us and Tampa," site of Super Bowl XLIII Feb. 1, Max Starks said. "It's the only obstacle in our way before we can go."

Bottling up the little guy
The Steelers have a long and distinguished playoff history, but never before -- not during the Steel Curtain years, nor Blitzburgh, never -- had they held an opponent to a mere 15 yards rushing in a postseason game. And Darren Sproles, the 5-foot-6 replacement for the injured LaDainian Tomlinson, worked hard for those 15 yards -- on 11 carries.

This under-sized tailback felt under-utilized, too.

"We got running the outside zone [in the beginning], those were working pretty good," said Sproles, who gained 8 and 4 yards on his fifth and sixth carries of the first quarter, then minus-5 total on his next three and was effectively shut down for the game. "Then we got away from it. We got down so fast, we were playing catch-up."

Sproles assembled 328 all-purpose yards against Indianapolis a week earlier, and he found some room elsewhere against the Steelers: a 63-yard kickoff return among his 164 on five kicks, and 91 yards receiving that including a 62-yard touchdown pass play. That's 255 yards and two big plays right there??? but only 15 more rushing.

"If I had a fake, they were out on me," Sproles said of the Steelers' close attention to him. "They weren't going to let me beat them. That's what they said after. It's rough, though."

3rd quarter fleeting
Seventeen seconds. That's all the San Diego offense saw of the third quarter.

"I don't even know what it was," defensive end Luis Castillo said.

"We had one play," added receiver Chris Chambers.

About that one play ...
Chambers knew he had a first down, maybe more.

His team had the ball at the Steelers' 23 after Sproles' 63-yard kickoff return. They had a chance to answer the Steelers' touchdown to open the second half at 21-10, home side.

"I thought it was a good play call," the Chargers receiver said of the pass tipped by defensive end Brett Keisel and intercepted by Larry Foote, who seemingly wrested the pop-up from fellow linebacker James Harrison. "It was a good read [by Philip Rivers]. I had a lot of room to the outside. They made an outstanding play. We weren't able to get any points.

"That may have been the difference in the game. We needed to score."

Quick hits The Steelers won their sixth consecutive game after a playoff bye, stretching to 1994. They have won their second game after those six just once, in 2005.

San Diego finally lost a playoff game in Pittsburgh. The Chargers are 2-1 in the playoffs in Pittsburgh, 0-13 in the regular season.

The Steelers are 1-0 against the Baltimore Ravens in the postseason, a victory in Heinz Field after the 2001 season.

Tomlin became the fastest to win a playoff game among all Steelers coaches, in his second season. Chuck Noll won his first in his fourth season. Bill Cowher won his first in his third season.


http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/09012/941278-66.stm
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