Special Teams: The Steelers' kickoff and punt coverage units evolved into some of league's best
Steelers special teamer Keyaron Fox, center, celebrates after recovering a fumble by the Patriots' Matthew Slater on a kickoff in the third quarter on Nov. 30.
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Josh Cribbs. Josh Cribbs. Terrence McGee. Terrence McGee. Derek Stanley. Derek Stanley.
You remember the starting gate that was the Steelers' special teams in 2007?
They wish they could forget.
"We were the laughingstock. Seriously," Anthony Madison remembered. "Last year, you know? It was almost comical.
"It was embarrassing, man. Seriously. It was embarrassing that a phase of the game where really it should kind of neutralize [play] -- really, it should help you, and, at the end of the day, it shouldn't hurt you. Last year, it was hurting us.
"This year ... we feel like we're an asset, not a liability."
Cleveland's Cribbs dashed off a 90-yard kickoff return and a 100-yard touchdown return on the same Nov. 16, 2007, afternoon -- "Surprisingly, we still won that game [31-28], because we were a huge part in keeping that one close," kicker Jeff Reed mused.
Arizona's Breaston, a Woodland Hills High School graduate, sprinted 73 yards with a punt return for a touchdown in a Sept. 30 loss by, ahem, a touchdown. The four longest plays wreaked upon the Steelers a year ago were kick or punt returns. Same for nine of the 13 total encompassing 40 yards or more -- two each on kick returns by Cribbs, Buffalo's McGee and St. Louis' Stanley.
Not so special then.
"That's the great thing now," continued Madison, a cornerback and special-teams ace. "We don't have to worry about squibbing it."
The Steelers finished 2008 with the AFC's No. 1 special teams in both kick- and punt-return defense. They finished as the NFL's No. 1 in kickoff defense and No. 4 in punt defense, a hefty hike from Nos. 16 and 14 in those respective categories a year ago.
The measurable difference, Reed explained, is "huge. You have a bunch of playmakers. And I try to give them the best ball I can so they do their jobs. We always use the motto: Sometimes the kick covers them, a lot of times they cover the kick. I think it's huge. It's also huge because it's our first play on defense."
Perhaps the units deserve an assist in helping the Steelers' defense rank No. 1 in the NFL. After allowing three kickoffs of 90-plus yards and a half-dozen of 44-plus last season, the special teams permitted one return of as much as 44 yards over the 2008 regular season. They pared almost 4 full yards off the opposition's average start after kickoffs, from the 30 to 26.4.
Madison, the regular-season leader with 25 specialty tackles, traces the about-face transformation in part to special-teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky and assistant Amos Jones, along with a new attitude and new cohesion.
"You have to credit the coaches to a certain degree, because they've allowed us to play," Madison said. "It's also continuity. And I think guys have really embraced their roles. We have a lot of different guys stepping in and contributing and making some plays for us. It's just a blessing, man, to have guys that really embrace their role, guys that say, 'This is my job. This is what I get paid to do.' That's why we've been doing so well this year.
"We all know how key special teams are. You look across the league, in these last few playoff games, you see where special teams have played a big role in teams winning and losing games."
It's Keyaron Fox, with a second-high 21 tackles -- despite missing three games. It's team rookie of the year Patrick Bailey, with 12 tackles.
"It's a group of guys. Shoot, the league MVP [on defense], he runs down and make plays," Madison said of James Harrison. "He's, what, third on the team in tackles [with 12]? It's Andre Frazier, man. He's as key as anybody. He doesn't complain about not making tackles. He's getting double-teamed every game. He's taking on two, so we can free up guys like myself and Fox. That's what it's about, though, man.
"And you can go down a long list of guys. You got Andre Frazier, you got Carey Davis, you got Gary Russell, Lawrence Timmons, William Gay, Anthony Smith. ... You know, we got a lot of guys making plays, man. That's going to be an asset for us in the playoffs."
First Published January 9, 2009 12:00 am