So far, so special

The Steelers' coverage units began to unravel about this point last season, but Mike Prisuta hasn't seen any indication that a similar implosion looms.

Anybody else have a flashback or two on Monday night?

Anybody else watch the Dolphins' special teams surrender a blocked punt that set up a touchdown, a kickoff return for a touchdown, and a blocked field goal for a touchdown and shudder?

Anybody else break into a cold sweat upon hearing that Seattle had returned not one but two kickoffs for TDs against San Diego?

The Steelers still aren't all that far removed from similar season-altering, special-teams implosions (their ineptitude a year ago was more consistent than it was spectacularly bad on a given Sunday).

The good news is that through four games their kickoff return team has scored one more touchdown (one) than their kickoff coverage team has allowed (zero).

The better news is they're not about to take their sudden competency covering kickoffs for granted.

"If you want to call it fixed you can say it's fixed, but we still have a lot of work to do," said cornerback and noted special-teams demon Anthony Madison. "Last year around this time I think the coverage unit was still doing pretty well."

Last year around this time Madison wasn't even here.

Still, he had a point.

Last year, the first special-teams return on which the Steelers coughed up a score came on a fumbled punt return on Oct. 4 against San Diego.

Last year, the wheels didn't begin to really come off from a coverage standpoint until Week Six, in a game at Heinz Field against Cleveland.

So began the streak:

* Josh Cribbs, Browns, 98-yard kickoff return, Oct. 18.

* Percy Harvin, Vikings, 88-yard kickoff return, Oct. 25.

* Bernard Scott, Bengals, 96-yard kickoff return, Nov. 15.

* And Jamaal Charles, Chiefs, 97-yard kickoff return, Nov. 22.

The Steelers lost two of those four games, both by less than a touchdown, one in overtime.

That could happen again, as Madison is well aware.

"It's too early to say what we have done or what we have not done," he maintained. "We have to wait."

That said, the performance of the special teams in general (with the exception of Jeff Reed) has at least been encouraging, the kickoff team's efforts in particular.

Last year it was hard, even seemingly impossible, for those covering a kickoff to make a tackle. This year it's hard for those covering a kickoff to make a tackle because chances are one has already been made.

"Guys are hustling and working hard," Madison said. "It's hard to make tackles out there now because you've got guys making the plays. You got guys like Will Allen running to the ball, (Keyaron) Fox, young guys like Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester, Arnaz Battle.

"The list goes on and on of guys out there making plays. It feels good knowing that you have guys that are going to tackle and are willing to work."

It has indeed been a team effort on teams. Fox leads the Steelers with six special-teams tackles, but he's been supported by Sylvester, Worilds and William Gay (five each), and Ike Taylor, Ryan Mundy, Allen, Madison and Battle (three each).

The kickoff coverage team deploys only one starter (Taylor) and otherwise consists of a nice mix of veteran reserves who are special-teams capable (Madison, Fox, Allen, Battle, Mundy and Gay) and a couple of youngsters eager to make their mark (Worilds, Sylvester and Antonio Brown).

They're confident but not yet comfortable that the worst is behind them.

They'll stay that way as long as teams such as the Chargers and Dolphins remind them that playing special teams in the NFL, like just about everything else in the NFL, is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately type of deal.

"We've been there before," Madison said. "The only thing you can say is you have to try to stop the bleeding before it gets worse, because the moment teams find a weakness they'll pile on it, they'll pounce on it.

"We still have work to do, but right now we're looking good. Hopefully we can build on it and help this team win games."


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