Wednesday, September 10, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Steelers' special teams were particularly exposed by Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs last season.It would seem like child's play for Joshua Cribbs again Sunday night in Cleveland. He gets to return kicks against the Steelers.
That has been like robbing banks on Barney Fife's watch.
He returned one 92 yards against them for a touchdown in 2006 and came right back with one of 100 yards last season.
"There is one Joshua Cribbs, and we are going to see him on Sunday," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "No question what he did to us in the past was very critical in terms of how the game played out."
Cribbs put Cleveland on top by four points with his 100-yard, fourth-quarter kickoff return Nov. 11 in Heinz Field. The Browns' lead stood up until Ben Roethlisberger threw the winning touchdown pass to Heath Miller with 3:13 left for the Steelers.
Had the Steelers lost that game, the Browns would have won the AFC North.
The Steelers ranked 14th in the 16-team AFC as a kickoff unit last season, allowing opponents to start at the 29.9 yard line on average. This came after Tomlin hired two special teams coaches for the first time in franchise history and gave them extra time for practice.
Maybe the coverage teams finally have improved this season. Special-teams play, including those of the kick- and punt-coverage teams, were as good as their offense or defense in the 38-17 victory Sunday against Houston. The Texans' Andre Davis, who returned three kickoffs for touchdowns last season when he averaged 30.3 yards per return, was held to an 18.7-yard average on six kickoff returns Sunday. A seventh went through the end zone for a touchback.
Also, Mitch Berger averaged 43.0 yards on three punts with only 5 yards in returns.
A big part of those tiny returns by Houston was the play of Anthony Madison, William Gay, Andre Frazier, Carey Davis and newcomer Keyaron Fox. Rookie Donovan Woods led special teams with three tackles. Defensive starters James Harrison and Ryan Clark also had a tackle each.
"I liked what 22 [Gay] and 37 [Madison] do as a tandem," Tomlin said. "They have very similar jobs, whether it is kickoffs, punt, or punt return; they are really the same guy. They are coming into their own in terms of embracing those roles. They are much better as we sit here today than they were a year ago.
"I like the direction that those two guys are moving."
The Steelers signed Fox, a linebacker, as an unrestricted free agent from Kansas City mostly for his special-teams play, and he has not disappointed them.
"We like our cast of characters," Tomlin said. "We have some questions that need to be answered, and the only way that they are going to be answered is with quality play."
Jeff Reed, who made his only field-goal try from 44 yards, varied his kickoffs against Houston. He kicked in different directions and popped one up purposely. The only one not returned was an unintentional squib that the Texans could not field and the ball rolled through the end zone.
"Jeff needs to be at his best, and we have to be at our best as coverage people [against Cribbs], " said Tomlin.
"Some of the guys who are major contributors on those units were not here a year ago or had different roles. We are going to leave those bags behind and go compete against somebody who is one of the best in the world."
Improved special-teams play could only enhance the overall success of the Steelers because they did not get good play in that area last season.