Monday, December 20, 2010

Special Teams Return to 2009 Form and Drag Rest of Team Down with Them

I am a believer in the church of the special teams. Yea verily, just as surely as many evangelicals believe in the certainty of the rapture, I believe that special teams touchdowns will come back to bit you in the ass. Hard. I believe that special teams are as important to a team's success as having a franchise quarterback, winning the turnover battle, and controlling the line of scrimmage. In some mystical karmic way, special teams points seem to carry more weight, more cache and special teams touchdowns are to regular touchdowns as dog years are to people years.

Exhibit A: San Diego Chargers. The Chargers are fighting for their playoff lives in no small part because of two early season losses: to the Chiefs by 21-14 - a game in which they gave up a punt return for a TD; and to the Seahawks by 27-20 - a game in which they gave up TWO kickoff returns for TDs. As things stand today, the Chargers are on the outside looking into the playoff picture.

Exhibit B: New York Giants. Who lost yesterday's thriller to the Eagles when they allowed DeSean Jackson to return a punt for a TD on the last play of the game. Brutal. The Giants still are hanging on to the last spot in the playoffs, but I have to wonder if they can get past the kick to the stomach that yesterday's loss was to win out in the last two weeks?

Exhibit C: Pittsburgh Steelers. The team won in Tennessee after Antonio Brown took the opening kickoff to the house. It was the only touchdown they scored all day. Then yesterday, they lost to the Jets after allowing Brad Smith to take the opening kickoff to the house. Coincidence? I don't think so.

You put your team behind the eight-ball when you allow a special teams touchdown. NFL teams are a combined 10-16 when giving up a special teams touchdown and, for some unknown reason, kick returns seem to do more damage that punt returns. In the 20 games with a kickoff returned for a touchdown in the NFL this year, the team with the KO TD has won 13 of those times, and lost just 7 times. Those are pretty much 2 to 1 odds that you'll win if you take a touchdown to the house.

Maybe it's just the letdown factor for the defense. If you're kicking off, either its the start of the game, the start of the half or you've just scored. So let's say your offense fights and claws and puts together a 80-something yard drive. It takes a lot of plays of 11 players doing their jobs, maybe a spectacular catch or two, or maybe a few tackle breaking runs. And all that work is negated on the ensuing kick. The hard work of that offensive touchdown is erased in about 3 seconds.

It's disheartening.

And it's no way to open a game. Particularly against a team like the Jets.

The Jets average just about 21 points per game and I'm not sure if the folks at Stats, Inc. adjust that for other scores - the Jets had another special teams TD and a TD on an interception return coming into this game. Regardless, the Jets are hardly the Patriots prolific offense, so you can't help a team score, particularly one that had been shut out earlier this year by the Packers and had scored just nine points in the last two weeks. Sure, they were fighting for their playoff lives, but still, this Jets team was there for the taking.

Even with the special teams miscue, and even with a defense that cannot make any big plays without Troy on the field (talk about disheartening - just one sack, just one tackle for a loss and only two QB hits), the Steelers were down by just 3 points and had the ball. (For more on the defense being just pedestrian without Troy, check out Gene Collier's great column.)

Why on earth was Mewelde Moore on the field on 1st and 10 from the Steelers 3? Moore is the best blitz protection back, so if you're gonna pass, I can see him being on the field. But at their own 3 yard line, I don't think the Steelers are going to pass there. And the Jets didn't think so either.

Every coach, every player has a chink in the armor, an achilles heel, not like Troy's injured achilles, but one in the Greek mythology sense. And I think that Bruce Arians' biggest flaw as a play caller is that he tries too hard to outsmart teams.

"It would be so stupid of me to run the ball around the corner with Mewelde Moore in this situation that nobody would expect it. Perfect! .... Oh. Crap."

It's a low percentage call in a situation where you cannot afford to lose yards, so what's the logic in handing the ball off to the smallest, weakest back on the roster and running something to the edges?

Why not hand the ball off to the guy who has 100 yards on the day and is averaging nearly 6 yards per carry? I've said it before and I'll say it again -- they drafted Rashard Mendenhall to be the man. They should give him the opportunity to be the man.

The kick off return for a touchdown, the safety -- those are the kinds of plays the Steelers have manufactured to win this season. With special teams reverting to last year's execrable form, and without the team MVP on the field, they couldn't get any of those plays, but rather watched helplessly while the Jets made a couple of big 'splash' plays in Tomlin-speak.

On the upside, the Steelers haven't lost a game to a bad team this year, unlike last season's five game skid that included losses to the bad stinky Chiefs, stinkier Raiders, and the stench that killed an entire region, a/k/a the Brady Quinn led Browns. So, they got that going for them. Yesterday's loss was not one of those terrible, embarrassing losses, but still, it's a game that was there for the taking.

1 comment: