Saturday, August 7, 2010

Special Teams Prayer Answered. Finally.

Some people worry about the deficit and some disingenuously worry about the deficit (and you know who you are); some people worry about H1N1, ebola or various other possible pandemics; some worry about helicopter parents and others are helicopter parents; some people fret about gas mileage and heating and cooling bills and, with training camp in full swing, a large percentage of Steelers Nation is concerned about the quarterback situation. Understandably so. I have even heard of a new breed of young mothers who fret about something called 'tummy time.' Whatever the hell that is.

Me? I don't worry about 'tummy time,' I worry about hang time, particularly speaking, the hangtime on kick offs. I worry about special teams. Only a special, pathetic sort of person spends the lion's share of football season wondering just when the special teams are going to screw the pooch, certain, deep in my heart of hearts, that they will. I torture myself with wild imaginings of all the various permutations and possibilities for special teams putridity. Fumbled punt returns, blown coverage, Jeff Reed standing statuesque as a returner blows by him, emboldened by the low angle and shortness of Reed's kick.

Yearly, I intoned, Why can't he kick off? Why can't they find somebody else to kick off for him!?

Then, this, courtesy of

Sepulveda got a chance to kick off, and he showed himself to be quite accomplished at it. On four kickoffs, Sepulveda’s hang-times were 4.07, 3.93, 3.87 and 3.70. The 4.07 kick also carried 2 yards deep in the end zone, and earlier in the evening, one of his mis-hits went 8 yards deep in the end zone.

In recent years, Reed's kick offs have been both short in time and short in length, a problem that I hope for his sake doesn't apply to the bedroom as well as the kick off tee. Not to belittle what he does. It's hard. (Somebody stop me.) At any rate, it takes a certain physical ability and also, a certain mental equanimity, to kick field goals in pressure packed situation on the sandbox they call Heinz Field. If it were easy, everybody would do it.

And yet, at the end of the day, the guy has two jobs. Just two. Kick field goals (at which he is tremendously adept) and kick off (at which he sucks.)

Consider the multitude of responsibilities other players have.

James Farrior calls complicated defenses, reads offenses, adjusts on the fly, and then, after all that, he has to fight through blockers, clog lanes and make tackles. Sometimes, he has to cover tight ends in pass patterns.

The quarterback, be it Ben, Double D or Leftwich, has similar responsibilities, only even more complicated. He's responsible, too, for getting the snap off in time, getting hand offs to the backs cleanly, dropping back with precise footwork, throwing timing patterns with perfect timing, shedding defensive linemen or blitzing linebackers.

Reed has to do two things and as good as he is at one of those things, he's equally as bad at the other one.

It started, almost innocently enough, back in 2001 before the arrival of the little hayseed with thunder thighs from North Carolina. (It isn't entirely Reed's fault.)

It was January, 2002. The Steelers were hosting the upstart Patriots in the AFC Championship game. (I cringed just typing that.) Thanks to a Troy Edwards penalty, the punt coverage unit gave up a touchdown return in the 1st quarter and the field goal unit allowed a blocked kick to be returned for a touchdown in the 3rd quarter and Evil Hoodie and the Patriots went on their reign of insolent terror.

It was a fluke, right. Just one of those wacky days when the ball bounces the wrong way. Friends claimed that the Steelers were still the better team and deserved to win. I thought it was an object lesson in the importance of special teams. I also thought that the Steelers would, themselves, see this as an object lesson in the importance of special teams.


Instead, they tortured us with shoddy, spotty special teams play. And it's been more of the same ever since. The 96 yard touchdown return against the Raiders in 2002 and the roughing the kicker call in Tennessee that ended that season. Dante Hall's 100 yard kickoff return in 2003. Last year's 97 yard touchdown in Kansas City. (What is it about the Steelers and the Chiefs? Are the Steelers spellbound, somehow dazzled by the bright red helmets, rendered unable to tackle KC kick off returners? I don't get it.)

Over the years we've cheered some wonderful wins and endured some painful losses. But every time the Steelers have a disappointing season, you can point to at least one game that the special teams blew.

Last year, the defense collapsed and we have no idea how that aged unit is going to perform this year. There are large, fat, slow, completely unknown and obtrusive question marks along the O Line, at quarterback, at running back, even at wide receiver. With so much promise, but so much that is tenuous, the very last thing the Steelers can afford to do is give up a game losing kickoff return for a touchdown. Or a momentum changing huge return that sets up a touchdown. They need help, luck and a little bit of magic. They need to be bold where they can be. This is the area. This is the time. Sepulveda is the guy.

One last thought, Mike Tomlin is taking all the Steelers to Canton to be there for Coach LeBeau's long-overdue induction into the Hall of Fame. It warmed my wee little Grinchy heart.