Collier: Overstating special teams' role
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Upon the approach of any football game of actual significance, we in the alleged analysis business are often reminded, in the very solemnest of terms, that you can't overstate the importance of special teams.
But that doesn't mean we can't try.
And Jesus said, blessed are those who run under punts and after kickoffs, for they shall be called the field position-makers.
And blessed are those who return the punts and kickoffs of the field position-makers, for they live in keeping with the law of the special teams coordinator.
And blessed are those who are long of snap, firm of hold, and quick of kick, for they shall be called the children of God.
There. I think we overstated it.
But, in some more modulated posture, just let me point out that AFC championship games at Heinz Field (there is one this week you might have heard) are apt to include a calamitous Steelers special teams play or three, and, since this Steelers team is not even a month removed from just such a pratfall, orchestrated by the very New York Jets who have an appointment here Sunday, Mike Tomlin's team will re-emphasize its attention to detail and technique in this area in the coming days.
"We need to stop Brad Smith from going 97 yards," Tomlin said as the week began. "That would be a good start."
It would at least prevent a bad one, as when Smith scored 12 seconds into the Dec. 19 loss when he covered those 97 yards with the opening kickoff, may or may not have even been touched by a single black-shirted opponent, and could easily have run unimpeded out of Heinz Field and all along North Shore Drive until he settled in at the bar at Hyde Park and ordered a single malt before anyone came close.
"People are going to make plays against you every once in a while," said Steelers tight end/blocking back David Johnson, who still works on the kick-return team. "We've played pretty well on special teams all year, and just because somebody breaks one isn't going to make us lose any confidence.
"All that does is make us play harder."
That is part of what makes the special teams gig so peculiar and so volatile -- harder is not always better, because harder is not always smarter. Three games after the Smith touchdown, the only special teams touchdown against the Steelers all season, they needed a spectacular tackle from kicker Shaun Suisham, who wrapped himself around Baltimore's Lardarius Webb like a crazed poodle to keep the Ravens' specialist from covering half the field with the opening kickoff of these playoffs.
"It's just that it's just a very few plays," said special teams ace Anthony Madison, still shaking his head at the Suisham tackle. "When you don't do your job, you get exposed. Every team left in the playoffs, the Jets, the Packers, the Bears, they all have dangerous returners.
"We've really got to be on our screws because it plays such an important role in field position. I look at [Antonio] Cromartie on tape, and he's a tough task for any coverage team."
For the record, if it were not for Cromartie, the Jets might never have made it to New England for shockfest last weekend. They had just fallen behind, 16-14, in Indianapolis on Adam Vinatieri's 50-yard field goal with 53 seconds left, when Cromartie took the Colts' kickoff and zipped 47 toxic yards with it, enabling Rex Ryan's team to punch home a winning field goal as the clock expired.
This is specifically what the Steelers' coaches are free to fear, a bad special teams play when even a standard one might ensure a third trip to the Super Bowl around here in the past six years.
And this is where we are compelled by local statute to invoke the name of Troy Brown, who returned a punt 55 yards for a touchdown, then blocked a field goal and flipped it to Antwan Harris for a 49-yard touchdown, enabling New England to upset the 9 1/2-point favorite Steelers here in January 2002.
Sure, that's a long time ago, but the problem is that just four days ago, Steelers special teams, even in victory, pulled a well-deserved "F" from our own professor Gerry Dulac, who grades all phases and positions weekly. Not only is that thing going to kill their GPA, but it is further evidence that a generally solid group of specialists isn't exactly peaking right now. Even Suisham, Sweezy Money for most of 2010, is dealing the occasional Sweezy I.O.U. here in January.
"A couple of times, we've nearly broken a kickoff ourselves -- it's been just one guy preventing it," said Johnson. "We know how important that could be, to go out there and on kickoff return and get 7 right away."
It is difficult this week, of course. You've got to get maximum acceleration from a returner toward a wall of blockers parallel to the Jets' sideline and beware the occasional protruding knee.
First Published January 20, 2011 12:00 am