Putting An End To Many Happy Returns

Jacoby Jones scorched them with a big return last week, and with Josh Cribbs coming up Mike Prisuta digs into what the Steelers have learned in the meantime.

Mike Tomlin wasn't in the mood for excuses, which wasn't surprising given his recently-revealed perception of those as "tools of the incompetent."

But the Steelers' head coach didn't mind throwing his punt-team gunners under the bus on Tuesday when the subject of Jacoby Jones' 63-yard burst across the Heinz Field turf last Sunday night for Baltimore was raised.

In the immediate aftermath, the dreaded "double-vice" (two blockers on each gunner) was attributed to springing Jones into the end zone.

Two days later more details were forthcoming.

"Our standards are simple," Tomlin said. "If they're one-on-ones we expect the gunners to win. We don't want returns, we want fair catches. If they're in two-on-one, they have to get down the field and be disruptive at the very least."

Against the Ravens, gunners Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen didn't do either and the game changed along with the scoreboard.

The follow-up question on Tuesday addressed the realistic expectation of that standard – forcing a fair catch or at the very least disrupting a potential long return – being met time after time after time. Verbatim, the query was, "Is that hard to do?"

"Yes," Tomlin acknowledged, "but there are a lot of things in football, particularly professional football, that are difficult to do. That's why we employ capable men."

The problem with that theory is the other teams are doing the same thing, particularly as it relates to their return men. Jones is probably the industry standard for "combustible" let alone "capable" right about now.

And the guy the Steelers will have to deal with this Sunday in Cleveland, Josh Cribbs, has been that previously and is at least in the conversation as the best-in-the-business at present.

The Dallas Cowboys got the memo on Cribbs. When they punted to him last Sunday, they punted out of bounds. Five times out of seven punts, the ball sailed out of play. Cribbs got so bored with it he started mimicking the official walking up the sideline with an arm upraised, ready to spot the ball.

Cribbs was usually about 10 yards or so ahead of where the zebra ultimately stopped.

The Cowboys also squibbed, pooched, mortared and otherwise kicked off away from Cribbs, but they couldn't keep it up all day. Their seventh punt didn't go out of bounds. Punting from the Dallas 4-yard line with 1:23 remaining in regulation, Brian Moorman blasted one that he knew Cribbs would be able to collect.

You can hear Moorman shouting an expletive right after the ball leaves his foot on the tape.

Cribbs' subsequent 21-yard return and a 15-yard penalty that was tacked on set the Brownies up at the Cowboys' 17. One play later, they took the lead.

That's how precise you have to be against these guys.

That's how imperfect the Steelers were against Jones.

"I accept a lot of responsibility to put those other 10 guys in a good position," offered Drew Butler, the Steelers' rookie punter. "I didn't give those guys a good enough chance to get him to the ground quick enough.

"He caught the ball and he had grass in front of him. You can put that on me."

Fair enough, assuming Butler was referencing either a hang-time or a directional-kick issue. But it shouldn't happen again.

The Steelers shouldn't allow it to.

Butler should be instructed to kick each and every punt out of bounds at all costs. If it goes 10 yards, it goes 10 yards. At least that way it won't go into the Steelers' end zone.

That's happened against Cribbs before, often enough that Tomlin has spoken previously of the Steelers too often "playing dead Indians in (Cribbs') cowboy movie."

It shouldn't take the resurrection of John Ford to direct a different ending on Sunday in Cleveland. But if the Steelers challenge Cribbs and Cribbs does what Jones did and the Steelers lose in a similarly agonizing fashion, it won't be the gunners or the punter deserving of a trip home under the bus this time.

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