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Special Needs

The Steelers can't shake a special-teams curse

"One must imagine Sisyphus happy ..." At least that's what Camus asserted about the Greek hero, who was condemned forever to push a boulder up a mountainside in Hades.


But then, old Albert wasn't viewing the Steelers' 2005 season from my seat on the North Side.


As the Steelers contemplate the possibility of golfing this January rather than preparing for a Super Bowl run, one has to wonder: How did the wheels come off a team that was within sniffing distance of the Super Bowl less than a year ago?


What went wrong, went wrong fast. Some things we probably should have seen coming, like the aging and slowing of the once-explosive linebacking corps. Some things come as a surprise, like irresolute play by the offensive line. Still other things, like the execrable performance of Tommy Maddox, hurt this team more than anyone could have expected.


But the one thing we should have anticipated was the abysmal play of the special teams. Again.


To my mind -- even with all of the above factors notwithstanding -- the Steelers could have won their recent games against divisional rivals Baltimore and Cincinnati with decent special-teams play.


That's a big coulda, woulda, shoulda, I realize. But consider:


Against the Ravens on Nov. 20, the Steelers' kickoff coverage unit gave up an average of 32.5 yards per return. And on a day when the Steelers offense committed only two turnovers (be grateful for the small things), the Ravens' average starting field position was their own 35; the Steelers started from their own 23. That's a big swing for two offenses that both needed help that day. One team got a boost from their special teams. One didn't.


Likewise the Dec. 4 Cincinnati game: The Bengals' average starting field position was their own 46 versus the Steelers, whose average start was at their own 31. Giving an opponent a 15-yard swing and a consistently short field is going to hurt one's chances. Especially when that opponent is an offensive killing machine like the 2005 Bengals.


But it's not just the number of special-teams gaffes that kills us: It's the timing. Ten minutes into the third quarter against Cincy, Ben Roethlisberger tied the game with a 20-yard TD pass to Hines Ward. Heinz Field was rocking. Everybody knew the Steelers had a really good chance to beat the Bengals and maintain their dominance of the AFC North.


But Steelers' kick coverage allowed Tab Perry to take Jeff Reed's kick from the Bengal's 3 to the Steelers 3. Instantly, the stadium fell silent. The Bengals punched the ball in easily, and the Steelers never recovered.


Against the Ravens, the Steelers muffed coverage on Chris Gardocki's first punt in overtime and then allowed the second punt to be returned to the Baltimore 44. From there, even the anemic Ravens offense could get close enough for a game-winning field goal.


Are you seeing a pattern?


I don't even need to mention the two huge special-teams plays by the 2001 Patriots that sent them tripping off to their first Super Bowl victory, and sent the Steelers packing.


Special teams can seem like an afterthought, but like the coaches always say, it is a third of the game. Think of it like the Supreme Court. It's a third of the federal government, but since you read all about the President and Congress every day, you often just forget about the judiciary. But when a major Supreme Court decision is handed down, you're reminded of how important that branch is.


Special teams is kind of like that: There aren't as many opportunities to do right; but that means there is an even narrower margin for error.


The irony is that coach Bill Cowher got his NFL start as a special-teams ace and special-teams coach. I find it hard to believe Bill can sleep at night. I know I can't. For most of us clad in black and gold, it seems like we've been rolling that special-teams rock up a hill on the North Side of Hades since 2001. You never know when special-teams play will cost the Steelers a game; you just know that it will.


To reference another old Greek guy, Hippocrates, shouldn't special teams be like doctors: First, do no harm?

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