By Dale Grdnic
Photo: David Hague – Inside Pittsburgh Sports
PITTSBURGH — While there were many reasons why the Pittsburgh Steelers finished 9-7 and missed the playoffs after the 2009 season, a significant contributor was the play from their kickoff coverage unit.
The Steelers lost five straight games late in the season and were not able to defend their Super Bowl title. Fourth-quarter collapses by the defense in those games were notable contributors as well, but allowing four kick returns for touchdowns in a five-game stretch was identified as an area of concern this season.
So, the Steelers brought in veteran coach Al Everest to coordinate their special teams units, and the club improved from last to a top-five coverage unit on kickoffs. That success was tainted a bit when Brad Smith opened the game with a 97-yard kickoff return in a 22-17 win Dec. 19, 2010 by the New York Jets and several big run-backs by the Baltimore Ravens last week.
“Well, it’s the same for a lot of things,” Everest said before turning to a military reference. “If you go to rescue 20 hostages and save 18 with two getting killed, they’re going to remember the two. It won’t be about saving 18. So, it’s not that you’re as good as your worst play, but you’re as good as your won-loss record. You still have to win the football game.
“We lost that last game against the Jets, but the first thing was that they executed really well on that opening kick. You need to give them full credit for that. They got the single blocks and the double blocks. So, they executed the play just like you draw it up, and they deserve credit for that. Any play executed like that is going to be a big play.”
Everest has used various Steelers veterans this season, as well as some young players, to shore up his coverage units. Among those players are Ike Taylor, but William Gay, Anthony Madison and Larry Foote also have been involved at one time or another.
And they all should be available when the Steelers (13-4) play host to the Jets (13-5) Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at Heinz Field.
“We definitely wanted to look at our coverage teams after that Jets game,” Madison said. “I feel like it was the difference in the game, because they basically stepped off the bus and got seven points. So, we changed some things on it, but we realize that we just have to win certain one-on-one matchups on the backside of the play.
“So, we worked on a few things and feel like we fixed it. We’ve just got to make sure that mistake doesn’t happen again. (But) it was huge. We lost the game by what, five points, and we lost the game by seven. So, that definitely was the difference in the game, and we all have to be on our games this week because they have a couple very good return men.”
Other veterans like safety Will Allen and wideout Arnaz Battle were brought in as free agents specifically to cover kicks and punts. Allen agreed that it was a disappointing way to open the regular-season game against the Jets, but he believed it was an anomaly.
Still, the veterans have provided a stabilizing presence.
“When I was in Tampa, it was the same way,” Allen said. “Very few rookies, 2-3-year veterans mostly were out there, and that made a difference. It’s the same thing here. That’s what they wanted here after the way things went last year. It really was an issue last year.
“So, I’m glad they identified it and brought me in to help shore up the special teams. I’ve enjoyed this season here, and I believe we’ve played pretty well. But these games now, they’re what you play for. This game is the biggest one we’ll play all season to this point.”
Then, you have a rookie like Stevenson Sylvester. The linebacker from Utah gives that position hope for the future, but also provides the club’s coverage teams with a big-hitting force.
“That was so unlike us,” Sylvester said, referring to the first Jets game. “That was the only one we had all year. When you see the looks on everybody’s faces after it happened, it was kind of crazy. It just doesn’t happen to us, we thought. (But) the Jets have good return units.
“That’s both on punts and kickoffs, so we have to do our jobs against them to help us get to the Super Bowl. You always shoot for perfection, and we haven’t been perfect. But I think we’ve had a pretty good year. We put our offense and our defense in pretty good positions all year.”
And if the Steelers coverage units continue that trend against the Jets, a Super Bowl trip certainly should be in their grasp.