Tomlin vows to shore up deficiencies in kickoff, punt coverage
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
Browns return man Joshua Cribbs brought to light glaring weaknesses in the Steelers' kickoff and punt coverage. (vs. Browns 11/11/07)

The Philadelphia Eagles once found a good special teams player by opening their stadium doors to all comers in an open tryout. Not only did Vince Papale, a bartender and Eagles season-ticket holder, make the team, he played three seasons for the Eagles and became their special teams captain.

Disney even filmed a 2006 movie about his story, "Invincible."

Any Pittsburgh bartenders out there who think they can cover kickoffs?

Apparently, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is not willing to follow the Eagles' approach of 30 years ago, even though he does not appear to have many players now who can consistently tackle on kickoffs.

"Just because things go bad, I don't want to have a knee-jerk reaction and be emotional," Tomlin said during his news conference yesterday. "We are not in that business. We are professionals. We have some guys that need to do a little better job at shedding blockers and tackling. We have to do a better job at getting them in position to do that.

"There won't be drastic changes. That is not how we operate."

There likely will be some changes, though, after Cleveland's Joshua Cribbs ran through the Steelers' kickoff team Sunday the way Roger Kingdom once ran over hurdles.

For one, two members of that unit are injured enough so that Tomlin said they are questionable this week -- linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Andre Frazier.

For another, well, when the kickoff coverage team is ranked 27th in the NFL, when you allowed kickoff returns of 90 yards to the 3-yard line and 100 yards to the end zone Sunday, telling the guys to just play better might not be enough.

And yet for another, if the Steelers thought Cribbs was impossible to stop, wait until they get a look Sunday at Leon Washington of the New York Jets. He's the only player in the NFL with three kickoff returns for touchdowns; he leads the league with an average of 33.5 yards per kickoff return; and he hasn't even had the good fortune of returning kicks against the Steelers yet.

"The football gods are always kind to you," Tomlin said sarcastically. "When you are struggling in an area, we get presented with the opportunity to defend the best guy in the world at returning kicks right now, Leon Washington.

"Great! And I mean that. This game and this profession is about challenges and response. I look forward to seeing what we are willing and capable to do in that area this week."

Presumably, that means Tomlin won't cover his eyes on Steelers kickoffs. He would like his team to merely cover better, and more starters might find themselves running under Jeff Reed's kickoffs against the Jets.

"Those are possibilities," Tomlin said. "It is early in the week. We will take a look at all of those. We'll have more information as the week unfolds."

While the kickoff-coverage team has been in the spotlight because of Cribbs and other long returns, the Steelers' special teams as a whole have not performed well this season. The Steelers spent two 2007 draft choices on rookie punter Daniel Sepulveda and a '08 seventh-round pick to acquire return man Allen Rossum in a trade with Atlanta. But overall, special teams play has been poor.

The Steelers rank 23rd in the league in average yards yielded on punt returns, 22nd in gross punting average and 27th in net punting average. They rank 30th in punt-return average and 13th in kickoff-return average, the latter being one area in which they rank among the top half of the league in special teams.

The one bright spot for Steelers special teams play has been kicker Jeff Reed, who has made 14 of his 15 field goal tries, missing only from 65 yards in Denver.

"I'm not happy with much that is going on right now," Tomlin said of his special teams play. "We seek perfection. We have to do a better job in a lot of areas."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at
First published on November 14, 2007 at 12:00 am