"Coach Cowher always says special teams win two or three games a year; if that's true, I like to think all of us on the special teams are worth what they're paying us." A quote from punter Josh Miller, who’d have thunk it. Truth is, the Steelers special teams haven’t been worth a plumb nickel for several years and if they’ve won any games, it’s been for the opposition.
Fourth Quarter: Special Ops
The argument has been made that great -- heck, even average -- play from the special teams would have saved the Steelers during their 2001 Super Bowl run. Instead, they’ve buried them. For a team that has fallen just a couple games shy of winning it all each of the last two seasons, an improved special teams unit may be just what the Steelers need entering the final stanza.
The 2002 draft, for all intents and purposes, was a special teams draft. Return specialists Antwaan Randle El (second round), Lee Mays (sixth), and coverage guys Chris Hope (third), Larry Foote (fourth), Verron Haynes (fifth), and Brett Keisel (seventh) were all expected to immediately and positively impact a special teams unit that had been stripped of its playmakers. The Steelers were no longer a team with good starters and great depth. Gone were special teams standouts like Hines Ward and Joey Porter; those players had moved into starting roles, and in the case of Ward and Porter, were sharing Most Valuable Player honors. Building the bench, then, was the way to go.
Randle El played well as a rookie, and while he seemingly outshined Mays, the two finished with near identical return statistics. Punter Miller, who is among the highest-paid legs in the game, is reportedly healthy after a shoulder injury ended his season prematurely. Hope and especially the now 285-pound Keisel have the potential to be special coverage players. 2003 first-rounder Troy Polamalu and fourth round cornerback Ivan Taylor offer sub-4.4 speed to a unit that had grown old and slow. Adding experience is former-Detroit Lions special teams ace Clint Kriewaldt, who signed this spring as an unrestricted free agent.
Miller’s statistics have steadily declined since 2000 when he led the league in punts placed inside the twenty with 34. Now 33, he’ll make over a million dollars in each the next four seasons. Kicker Jeff Reed was a godsend, nailing 17-of-19 field goals (89.5%) after replacing the ineffective Todd Peterson. While Peterson is gone, Reed must prove he’s more than just a one-year wonder. His kickoffs, too, must improve. For all the excitement he generates, Randle El still finished among the middle of the NFL pack in punt and KO returns. He did a better job of getting upfield on his returns as the season wore on, but needs to become more decisive.
Gone is special teams captain John Fiala, who made far more jingle than he was worth. In his place is Kriewaldt, who may well make far more jingle than he is worth. As the designated special teams mercenary, he’ll need to be outstanding to justify the $2.38 million the Steelers doled out. Randle El fumbled more often and at more crucial moments than he, or I, would care to remember. The rookie Taylor, who could be a weapon on both the coverage and return units, was moved from running back to corner at Louisianna-Lafayette because he couldn’t catch a cold. More of the same? Shudder.
The kickers are consistent enough, the return guys are special enough, and the coverage guys are aggressive enough. If there is one thing this unit has that has been missing of late its attitude and intensity. Rookie fullback J.T. Wall and end-turned-backer Alonzo Jackson will join big hitters Hope, Keisel, Polamalu, and Taylor to give the Steelers a young, athletic, and perhaps more important, cheap alternative to the abysmal units of seasons past that bit the team so squarely in the arse. The rest is up to coaches Kevin Spencer and Bill Cowher. With the majority of offensive and defensive starters under contract for at least this year and next, special teams consistency should be the hammer that drives home the championship nail.
Someone had to go, it might as well have been Roy Attieh, the rookie defensive lineman from Kent State who was released yesterday by the Steelers. Was he any better than rest of the non-descript nosetackles competing with Kendrick Clancy? Doubt it.
Ideally the Steelers find two defensive backs and a linebacker among the current group of undrafted free agents to round out to this season’s practice squad. Among the favorites are Dantonio Burnette, Russell Stuvaints, and Rashad Faison. All can reportedly bring it, and they’ll get their chance when the pads go on in a couple of weeks.
Rookie signings, what’s that? Expect them to begin rolling in over the next ten days, especially now that Mark Bruener has accepted a reduced salary. Like he had any choice. Expect Alonzo Jackson to be the last of them (right, now watch him make me a liar and agree to terms tomorrow).
Let this one marinate …
All this nonsense about breakout players is just that, nonsense. Its easy, and a farce, to list a bunch of guys who were either high-round disappointments, or mid-round surprises, as rookies. And none of these lists include Kendrell Bell, who nobody has seen the best of. Or Plaxico Burress, who may be downright scary this year. Or how about Chris Hope, who would be the fastest free safety this team has had in a decade, mind you. If only Bill lets him.
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