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fordfixer
01-27-2009, 12:35 AM
Steelers Special Teams: Holmes Can Make History

By Tony Moss,

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(Sports Network) - When the New York Giants upset the previously unbeaten New England Patriots to cap off a thrilling Super Bowl XLII last February, a fan exiting University of Phoenix Stadium could be heard to exclaim, "Now I've seen everything."

He was wrong.

There are still two major events that have never taken place on any of the previous 42 Super Sundays.

The first, oddly enough, is an overtime session. There have been some close calls, but still no fifth quarter.

The second is a punt return for a touchdown.

The Packers' Desmond Howard posted punt returns of 34 and 32 yards en route to capturing Super Bowl XXXI MVP honors, but only hit paydirt on a kickoff return.

The lightning-quick Darrell Green of Washington nearly broke free against the Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII, but his 34-yard jaunt toward paydirt ended after punter Ray Guy tripped him up.

The 49ers' John Taylor posted a Super Bowl-record 45-yard return against the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII, but was downed just inside the Cincinnati 50.

This season, the odds could be better than ever of a player rushing toward glory on a punt return.

The Arizona Cardinals' punt returner is the electrifying Steve Breaston. The former Michigan star doesn't have a return of longer than 11 yards in these playoffs, but he scored his first career TD last Sept. 30, on a 73-yard punt return against - you guessed it - the Pittsburgh Steelers.

His counterpart, Santonio Holmes, might be an even stronger candidate to break the embargo.

Holmes is just two weeks removed from a key 67-yard punt return for a score against the San Diego Chargers, who possessed one of the best punt coverage units in the league in 2008.

Additionally, the Cardinals were a generally poor punt coverage unit during the regular season, surrendering 13.1 yards per return, including an 82-yard touchdown to Minnesota's Bernard Berrian on Dec. 14th.

Arizona also allowed a 104-yard kickoff return for a score to 49er (and ex- Steeler) Allen Rossum, meaning Holmes could find himself a lane against the Cardinals coverage group.

If he fields a punt and travels a route all the way to the end zone, Holmes will have also found a path to Super Bowl history.

A complete breakdown of the Steelers' special teams heading into Super Bowl XLIII.

Placekicker: The Steelers have a reliable leg in seventh-year kicker Jeff Reed, who was 27-of-31 on field goals during the regular season. In the AFC Championship, Reed was 3-for-3 on field goals, connecting on kicks of 34, 42, and 46 yards in less-than-ideal conditions. Reed does not have a touchback on 12 kickoffs during the 2008 postseason.

Punter: Steelers punter Mitch Berger (41.3 avg.) was competent but unspectacular during the regular season, but the 36-year-old journeyman has not kicked well during the playoffs. Berger has punted to averages of just 41.5 (gross) and 33.4 yards (net) on 11 punts, and has not placed a single kick inside the 20-yard-line. Berger, who played in five games as a member of the Cardinals in 2007, will be appearing in his first Super Bowl since entering the league in 1994.

Long-snapper: Jared Retkofsky, who was working as a furniture mover when the Steelers signed him in late October, will have an opportunity to win a Super Bowl ring as the team's long-snapper. The TCU product, who had four tackles in nine games during the regular season, was signed when veteran long-snapper Greg Warren tore his ACL against the Giants, and was subsequently placed on season-ending injured reserve.

Punt returners: Holmes was not necessarily sensational on punt returns during the regular season, averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt, but showed against the Chargers that he possesses big-play ability if given some space. In addition to his performance against the Bolts, Holmes also had a nice 25-yard punt return against a good Ravens punt coverage group in the AFC Championship.

Kickoff returners: Reserve running back Gary Russell (23.2 kickoff return average) is not a prime candidate to break a long return, but is sure-handed and, as a sturdy 215-pounder, is unafraid to hit the hole. Fellow running backs Mewelde Moore and Carey Davis have also attempted kickoff returns in these playoffs, and Moore is a good backup candidate thanks to his two returns for scores (both on punts) while with the Vikings from 2004 through 2007. But Moore has been battling an ankle injury, meaning Russell is still the top candidate for these duties.

Special teams defense: The Steelers coverage groups did a consistently credible job during the regular season, allowing 19.3 yards per kickoff return and 6.2 yards per punt return without surrendering a touchdown on either avenue. Some cracks have formed in the foundation during the postseason, however. The Chargers' Darren Sproles broke free for a 63-yard kickoff return in the Divisional Playoff round, while Baltimore's Jim Leonhard set up a touchdown with a 45-yard punt return in the AFC Championship. Also, as mentioned, the Steelers allowed a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown to Arizona's Steve Breaston when the teams met in Week 4 of the 2007 campaign.

01/26 11:43:52 ET