Kamikazes improve kick coverage

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Before the Steelers played at Cincinnati last month, Emmanuel Sanders was warned about how Bernard Scott found a cutback lane and returned a kickoff for a touchdown at Heinz Field last season.

"I heard about the previous year, how he took one back," Sanders said. "That was a key play in the game and helped them win last year. The coaches preached that the whole week leading up to that, and we knew as a kickoff-coverage (unit) we had to contain him."

So, Sanders ensured there would be no encore.

The rookie receiver crushed Scott on the opening kickoff, forcing a fumble that was recovered by Jason Worilds to set up a touchdown. It was a sign that things were going to be different this season for the Steelers, who dropped from the NFL's No. 1 kick coverage unit in 2008 to 26th last season.

"I was real pleased they started out that way on the opening kickoff," said Steelers special teams coordinator Al Everest, who came from San Francisco to replace Bob Ligashesky. "Special teams can definitely set the tone for you, and that's our job, to set the tone and create momentum sometimes when there isn't momentum. It's a challenge. It's just like saving hostages. You've got 20 of them, and you save 18, they don't write about the 18 you saved. They're going to write about the two you got killed."

Last season, the story written about the Steelers was that they surrendered an NFL-high four kickoff returns for touchdowns in a five-game span. Scott, whose 98-yarder was a catalyst in Cincinnati's 18-12 victory at Heinz Field that sent the Steelers spiraling into a five-game losing streak, returns to Heinz Field at 1 p.m. today when the Bengals (2-10) visit the Steelers (9-3).

The Steelers rank eighth in the NFL, and, more importantly, haven't allowed a touchdown this season. The Steelers kept kick returners out of the end zone two of the previous five seasons. Both years, they won the Super Bowl.

That the Steelers have avoided a hostage crisis owes in part to a cast of what safety Ryan Mundy called "kamikazes" that features six new faces and a new special teams coach with a simple philosophy.

"Kickoff is a bunch of attitudes who will not be denied," Everest said. "The reason a guy ought to like playing special teams is about 90 percent of it is a one-on-one matchup. If you're a competitor, you want to win those matchups, whether you're blocking a guy or whether you've got to defeat the block. To me, the real competitors come out, particularly on kickoff cover because you're going to have to beat a block to make a play."

The one connection between the players who returned kickoffs for touchdowns against the Steelers last season - Cleveland's Josh Cribbs, Minnesota's Percy Harvin, Cincinnati's Scott and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles - is that the Steelers failed to beat their blocks.

Director of football operations Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin placed an emphasis on special teams in the offseason. After re-signing Anthony Madison, who led the Steelers in special-teams tackles in '08, late last season, the Steelers signed veteran free agents Will Allen and Arnaz Battle and used draft picks on Sanders and linebackers Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester to improve the bottom of the 53-man roster.

"Your backups have to be good special-teams players; if not, then you're sitting ducks," Madison said. "We've seen in this league certain teams that have given up kick returns that have been huge factors in the outcome of wins and losses. It's an emphasis we take seriously here."

Four Steelers' special-teamers - Madison, Keyaron Fox, Worilds and Mundy - have double-digit tackles. But they point to Battle - one of the "hunters," because he takes a direct inside lane to the return man - as a difference maker by taking on multiple blockers to break the wedge.

"My job is to distract that returner from hitting that crease inside, making him bounce the play, making him take a hold, making him not go towards his wedge, where his blockers are at," Battle said.

Everest didn't have to look at '09 game film to pinpoint the problem.

"I didn't have to look at it," Everest said. "I knew where it was."

Everest cited holdovers William Gay and Ike Taylor, whose job is to protect the perimeter by squeezing the play inside and make stops near the sideline, as a prime reason the Steelers have kept kick returners out of the end zone.

And they intend to keep it that way, especially after Buffalo's Leodis McKelvin almost busted one by taking the opening kickoff of overtime 49 yards two weeks ago.

"We're not going to stop working and trying to get better until the end of the season," Fox said. "As much as we've improved this year, there's still a lot of games left and a lot of big-time returners left that we must face that we have to keep in the bag."