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Steelers Play of the Game: Andre Davis' kickoff return

Special teams still haunting Steelers

Monday, October 06, 2003

By Gerry Dulac, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

There are a number of surprising aspects to the recent demise of the Steelers, perhaps the most puzzling being the defense’s inability to force an incompletion by an opposing quarterback.

But there is one element that continues not to be a surprise: The ineptitude of the special teams.

“Same ol’ theme,” coach Bill Cowher said. “Turnovers and some big plays.”

Some very big plays.

To be sure, the Steelers’ 33-13 loss to Cleveland -- the first time Browns coach Butch Davis has beaten his AFC North rival -- featured any number of culprits, including quarterback Tommy Maddox, who had another interception returned for a touchdown.

Not to be overlooked was the offensive line, which allowed Maddox to feel plenty of heat on a cool October night, something that typically doesn’t happen against the Browns. Under new defensive coordinator Dave Campo, Cleveland blitzes about as often as the Browns defeat the Steelers, which, until last night, had occurred just twice in the previous 15 meetings.

On top of that, the secondary spent another game watching an opposing quarterback complete just about every pass he attempted. Tim Couch, who looked more like Kelly Holcomb, completed 16 of 17 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. His only incompletion came when he threw away a second-down pass in the end zone from the Steelers’ 2 in the first quarter.

Last week, Titans quarterback Steve McNair completed 15 of 16 passes, with his only incompletion coming on a play in which television replays showed cornerback Chad Scott interfering with intended receiver Derrick Mason. Go back to the Week 3 game in Cincinnati, when Jon Kitna completed his final three passes, and the Steelers went though a period in which quarterbacks went 34 of 36 for 330 yards and six touchdowns. Add a 3-yard Couch completion in the third quarter and it was 35 of 37.

Shocking?

Not nearly as much as the way special teams continue to plague the Steelers. And not nearly as disturbing as the manner in which they allowed the Browns a second chance to beat them.

“You know what it is, we have to play all three phases of football, regardless of what’s going on on offense, regardless of what’s going on on defense,” safety Mike Logan said. “It has to be a want-to by the guys out there on special teams.”

It’s not just something as simple as Antwaan Randle El muffing a punt early in the second half, a gaffe that wasn’t costly because cornerback Chidi Iwuoma recovered at the Browns’ 41. This was more debilitating.

Worse, it came one play after the Steelers seemingly did something right on special teams -- holding Browns returner Andre Davis to a 15-yard return that gave the Browns possession at their own 22, nearly 10 yards shy of the average starting field position the Steelers have yielded this season.

But, linebacker Clark Haggans, the special teams captain, jumped offside on the play forcing the Steelers to kick again.

“Unacceptable,” Haggans said afterward. “That’s not supposed to happen. I don’t expect that of myself.”

When they did, Davis took the ball back 69 yards, racing untouched until kicker Jeff Reed grazed him with a lunge and cornerback Dewayne Washington ran him out of bounds at the Steelers’ 23.

Four plays later, Couch threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kevin Johnson, and the Browns had more than a 16-3 lead. They had the energy necessary to do in the Steelers with their most lopsided victory in Pittsburgh since they beat the Steelers, 51-0, in the 1989 season opener.

“I try to lead by example,” said Haggans, who was named special teams captain this year after John Fiala was released. “Obviously, I didn’t do that tonight. All my actions, they don’t help the team. I take full responsibility for it.”

Haggans said he was so eager to go make a play he jumped offside by nearly 2 yards.

“They warn us before the game,” Haggans said of the officials. “They say everybody get off on time.”

“It’s something we practice, one of the things we focus on -- no offsides,” Reed said. “And the officials tell me before every kickoff -- they’re watching that -- and I tell all the guys.”

Haggans’ gaffe was just another in a series by the Steelers’ special teams.

In the 41-20 loss in Kansas City in Week 2, Dante Hall returned a 100-yard kickoff return for touchdown -- starting his NFL-record streak of four games in a row with a kick return for touchdown -- and returned a punt 41 yards to set up another.

Last week, Reed had a 30-yard field goal blocked by Titans safety Tank Williams that would have tied the score. The Titans used the momentum to turn around and march 80 yards in nine plays for the go-ahead touchdown in a 30-13 victory.

Now this.

“My job is to make the guy go back inside,” Reed said. “But I didn’t do my job. I lunged at him, got part of the ball, but everyone has a job and you’re expected to do it.”

If that wasn’t bad enough, Haggans was called for blocking linebacker Barry Gardner in the back during what would have been a 66-yard punt return for touchdown by Randle El in the second quarter. It was not a good night for Haggans. And it wasn’t a good night for the special teams.

Understand, it’s not just the returns that are hurting the Steelers.

It’s the manner in which they are executed.

The coverage units are allowing holes the size of the Liberty Tunnels, and the players are acting like spectators at a marathon, waving at the runners as they go by.

That’s the reason the Steelers have some of the worst kick coverage in the NFL, ranking 30th in the league with an average of 25.9 yards a return. And why they are making every returner look like Dante Hall.

But offsides?

“I was so eager to get there as fast as I could,” Haggans said.

Ugh.


Gerry Dulac can be reached at gdulac@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1466.

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