Monday, November 12, 2007

“Paging Bob Ligashesky …”

“One thing is for certain: We stink as a kickoff coverage unit.”

— MikeTomlin, Steelers Head Coach

You know those Southwest Airlines commercials with the “Looking for a place to hide” themeline?

Well, that’s Bob Ligashesky today. Ligashesky, the Steelers’ beleaguered special teams coach, must wish he were relaxing on a remote island somewhere. Instead, he is in “The News” and feeling the harsh glare of the spotlight because there is no place for him to hide. As Gerry Dulac noted in today’s edition of The Pittbsurgh Post-Gazette:

“In the past three games, the Steelers have allowed seven kick returns of 33 yards or longer – four of 42 yards or longer. For the season, they have allowed six returns of 42 yards or longer, including four of 52 yards or longer.”

There is no excuse for the way the Steelers’ kick coverage units have performed all season – and especially yesterday. No excuse – not even the sloppy, dreadful Heinz Field turf, which is a disgrace, as referenced by Cleveland’s veteran kicker Phil Dawson, who calls it the worst in the NFL.

No, the Browns’ Josh Cribbs somehow found sufficient footing as he danced down the sideline on his buzz-killing 100-yard kickoff return in the fourth-quarter, even as Steelers slipped and slid in their vain efforts to tackle him. And, just an aside here, but what the hell was Bryant McFadden doing, as he sauntered down the sideline in tandem with Cribbs? How about fighting through the blocker, Bryant, and at least trying to force something there?

And speaking of “what the hell,” just what the hell was Alan Rossum, the Steelers’ punt return man, thinking when he neglected to field the Browns’ last punt late in the fourth quarter? By allowing the ball to land, he let it roll an extra 20 yards … which put the Steelers way back in their own territory. Which, in turn, gave the Browns excellent field position after the Steelers punted … field position which was negated in part only because of a (borderline) holding penalty called on the Browns’ Darnell Dinkins (a Pittsburgh native, by the way, who played at Schenley High School).

Anyway, as Gerry Dulac wrote in this morning’s edition of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

It might not be possible for a National Football League team to spend more time working on special teams than the Steelers, who employ two full-time assistant coaches(*) to handle special teams.

“Just imagine what it would look like had we not done that?” Tomlin said.

There were other problems as well. The Steelers had only 10 players on the field when the Browns quickly punted late in the fourth quarter,(*) forcing Harrison to run on the field at the last minute. That caused Rossum, who said he was counting players, to refuse a fair catch and let the ball roll to the Steelers' 11.

But that is minor compared to the troubles the Steelers have had with their kick coverage.

*Bold-face emphasis, Joey Porter’s Pit Bulls

As it turns out, Rossum’s gaffe didn’t totally backfire, as it should have, because the Steelers were bailed out when the Browns’ Darnell Dinkins was flagged for holding on the Sepulveda punt that should have been spotted at least 10 yards further upfield. That may have been the tipping point late in the game, as Romeo Crennel noted when he answered the following question in his post-game news conference:

Reporter: “The penalty on Dinkins after the final punt, how big a momentum swing was that?”

Crennel: “It was tremendous, because we would’ve made that field goal if we’d had that yardage.”

That’s probably true, and as Dinkins himself noted:

“At a vital time in the game I blew a guy off the ball and the referee decides to say that I was holding and it costs us the game today. It took us out of field goal position. This game was a matter of inches. Phil (Dawson) missed the field goal by a couple of inches and we would have already been up there if it wasn’t for my penalty.”

So, the Steelers aren’t the only team that makes mistakes on special teams. That’s still no excuse. They got lucky the ref flagged Dinkins on a call that just as easily might not have been made.

Cribbs finished with more yards on kickoff returns (204) than the Browns offense had total yards (163). Jamal Lewis had only 35 yards on 16 carries (2.2 yards per carry), although the Browns wanted to run time off the clock in the second half.

Fortunately, for the Steelers, their big-time players made big-time plays when needed most. On offense, Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and Heath Miller all were clutch. On defense, James Harrison, the Silverback, once again asserted his monstrosity by forcing two fumbles. He’s turning forced fumbles into an art form and making them a weekly habit.

Another thing about Harrison, who is the special teams captain: He once again demonstrated leadership by not only volunteering to go on punt coverage at the end of the game, but by tackling Cribbs following Rossum’s gaffe. According to Dulac’s column in the Post-Gazette:

“It was so bad Harrison, a special-teams co-captain, volunteered to play on the kick-coverage team after the Steelers took the lead with 3:13 remaining. Sure enough, Harrison, who has played sparingly on the coverage units the past two weeks, tripped up Cribbs and held him to six yards on the final return.”

Harrison isn’t the only veteran recognizing that the young guys aren’t getting it done on special teams (Lawrence Timmons, we’re calling you out). According to Dulac, Brett Keisel, James Farrior and Clark Haggans all said they are ready, if needed, to play on the coverage units again.

Evidently, they’re needed.