Unspecial teams un-nerve Steelers

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The average kickoff return in the National Football League measures 23 yards, 14 and 2/5ths inches.

The average kickoff return against the Steelers measures in part, most ironically, the same 14 and 2/5ths inches, plus ... let me make sure to get it right ... yeah, 70 yards.

Of course it only seems that way.

I kid the kickoff-coverage team.

Funniest thing this week was head coach Mike Tomlin revealing during his regular media massage that LaMarr Woodley strained his hamstring covering a kick last Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. I mean, did it look like anyone was straining themselves out there?

Only the Cincinnati Bengals and the winless Miami Dolphins, for pity's sake, are allowing superior starting field position on kickoffs than what's being proffered by the 7-2 Steelers, who generally set their foes up at the 31.

Kicking it out of bounds and giving it to them at the 40, considering the often sickening alternatives, is looking like a viable option.

On the amazingly accurate palatability scale of 1 to 10 I just made up, a 1 representing a minor annoyance and a 10 characterizing a pitchfork to the side of the head, Joshua Cribbs' 100-yard high-wire scoring run for the Browns from the disadvantaged intersection of Goal Line Road and Sideline Alley last week was clearly a 10, but it's the frequency of other fairly stinging numbers that has sustained this topic through the otherwise unremarkable ramp-up to today's 4:05 arm wrestle with the New York Frets.

It's not so much that the kickoff-coverage kids can have someone pinned in apparent hopelessness after a muff and still give up six, it's that they allowed Cribbs to go 90 on them earlier in the day, Terrence McGee of the Buffalo Bills to run 63 yards and 44 yards in Week 2, Baltimore's Musa Smith to take one 52 a week ago Monday, Glenn Holt to sprint 42 yards at Cincinnati, and nine others to author returns of 25 to 34 yards, all well above average.

Tomlin mentioned that he's not into knee-jerk reactions on these issues, but, as a former knee-jerk reactor of the year in the oversimplification division, it strikes me that this week was a time to search the league's vast roster of marginal mayhem specialists for a special-teams hit man in the mold of Chidi Chidi Bang Bang Iwuoma or Sean Morey, the former released by the Steelers for the umpteenth time Sept. 1, the latter exiting via unrestricted free agency last spring.

Or -- and this is the tact Tomlin prefers to the moment -- maybe the current employees could just, you know, tackle somebody.

"I'd love to have Sean Morey back," Hines Ward said flatly in the middle of this week. "He had a special feel for kick coverage. Some guys are going to have to step up."

Whoever does, whether it be the basic cast of suspects Tomlin has assembled for that particular mission or some experimental combination of young players and veteran starters -- the head coach was tinkering right up until the weekend -- they are hereby cautioned that footing in the vicinity of Jets' returner Leon Washington this afternoon is expected to be slippery, mostly due to the saliva New York's ace return man has to be generating at the approach of Steelers special teams.

It's not likely much of an exaggeration to suggest that No. 29 in green is the best player on the Jets' roster, inasmuch as Washington has more touchdowns returning kickoffs (three) than New York has in the ground game (two). Moreover, there's nothing terribly fluky about that.

Since 2001, the Jets have returned 10 kickoffs for touchdowns. No other team has as many as seven in that span.

That particular juxtaposition, the Jets' continuing excellence at returning kicks and the Steelers' continuing slapstick at preventing long returns would appear to be an inevitable combustion just waiting for a spark this afternoon. But there is, and always has been, a certain chaotic quality to kickoffs that makes every one a unique result of generally random violence, frightening speed, and dumb luck. That's why Clint Kriewaldt, now in his ninth year running into precisely that mayhem for the Steelers, says the cure isn't necessarily in different personnel, even when Tomlin's general assessment of his special teams ("We stink!") is accurate.

"I'm right there with him on that," Kriewaldt said. "But we've got the guys who can make it right. Every guy out there can make plays. I've seen it before, what we can do. There's no doubt we've got to get it corrected, but I know we can."

Uh-huh. That's one of us.

Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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