Special Teams: "Less is more?"
Less Is More?
By JIM WEXELL
The coaches and most of the players remain, but the approach has not. There’s been a change in the way the Steelers are practicing their special teams.
“Less of it,” said James Harrison. And this actually brought a smile to the otherwise stoic Pro Bowl linebacker’s face.
“I really like it,” Harrison said. “I think last year we were doing it so much it got to where guys were real lackadaisical with it, complacent, and gave a real nonchalant effort to it. Right now, I feel guys are more focused on it because you’ve only got a short period of
time to actually get what we’re doing, where last year we had damn near an hour of practice to go through one drill. The scarcity of it right now is going to help.”
The Steelers brought in three new coaches last year who were intent on improving a special teams unit that had fallen to 30th in the NFL. New head coach Mike Tomlin paid the unit more than the lip service Bill Cowher provided by bringing in two assistants — Bob Ligashesky and Amos Jones — to work with special teams, and Tomlin let them
The time spent on special teams — along with the variety of gadgets that were brought
out of the shed — was well documented throughout Tomlin’s first season. When Steve
Breaston and Joshua Cribbs returned kicks for touchdowns, fans and reporters recounted the grueling practice time the special-teamers went through over the spring and summer. In fact, the focus on practice time may have overshadowed the gigantic strides made overall on special teams.
According to the Dallas Morning News, the paper that uses 22 categories to rank NFL special teams units every year, the Steelers improved from No. 30 in the league in 2006 to No. 15 last season.
Yes, the Steelers lost points for having the No. 30 punt return average, and fell 12 spots in punt coverage, and still ranked among the worst in the league in opponents’ average starting point, but they made up ground, and then some, because of their two kickers.
Rookie punter Dan Sepulveda set an unofficial team record (data from 1976 to present) with an inside-the-20-to-touchback ratio of 28-to-2. In other words, 93.3 percent of Sepulveda’s kicks beyond the opponent’s 20-yard line were downed before the goal line. The Steelers ranked dead last in 2006 in this category. Sepulveda also helped the Steelers move up 12 spots in overall punting and 10 spots in net punting.
Kicker Jeff Reed ranked first in the NFL in field goal percentage, which accounted for the
Steelers’ largest improvement in special teams. Reed, who only missed a 65-yard attempt at Denver and a 44-yard attempt in the Miami “Muck Bowl,” moved up 25 spots in accuracy, and also moved within percentage points of Norm Johnson on the team’s all-time accuracy list.
Now, the coverage units need to make those kinds of improvements. Harrison believes less practice time will help. Ryan Clark, another of the starters working on special teams, isn’t so sure.
“No matter what scheme you use, if you don’t tackle the man with the ball or block the
guy trying to tackle your man with the ball, it’s not going to work,” Clark said. “I’ll be honest, you thought about the time wasted (last year). You thought about the time you put into practicing it and not going out and efficiently and effectively implementing it on the field. That was the worst part. If you’re going to do all that practicing, you might as well be good at it. No matter how much time you give the coaches, if we don’t go out there and execute, we know what’s going to happen.”
The Steelers drafted players such as Bruce Davis, Mike Humpal and Ryan Mundy to help
the coverage units. Davis was one of the best special-teamers at the Senior Bowl. The Steelers also brought in linebacker Keyaron Fox to help.
“I think getting Anthony Madison back last year was really big for us. I think he did a good job,” Clark said. “William Gay is a very good special-teamer. On the other hand, it kind of hurts when your best special team player becomes a Pro Bowl linebacker, so you’ve got to find guys to fill that void.”
Harrison, while overworked last season, is prepared to continue playing on all coverage
units in addition to outside linebacker. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” said Harrison,
who, when pressed, admitted he almost broke last season.
“I got tired,” he said, “but it’s something I’m going to have to get used to or get in better
condition. But I don’t really think I can get in any better condition than I was. It’s going to wear on you, so you’re going to have to come out here and there. But, like I said, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. I’ll just have to roll with it.”
It’s obvious Harrison will need to take some breaks. Would it help the team if he took time
off from special teams or defensive duty?
“I don’t know,” he said. “It really depends on the situation, I guess, and who we’re playing and the returners they have.
“There were games when I came out against certain teams or didn’t start off the games playing special teams. If they ended up getting a nice return or something I’d go in. It’s really situational, and whether I should go in or take a break will be up to Coach Tomlin.”
Re: Special Teams: "Less is more?"
Now I know why he was the rookie MVP of the Steelers.
Originally Posted by NKySteeler