Grading The Players - The Specialists

Following is a series grading the players and strength of position for the 2003-04 Pittsburgh Steelers.<br><br> <b>Today: The Specialists</b>

Heinz Field is considered the place where kickers go to die. At least that was the thought before Jeff Reed joined the Steelers last season and made 17-of-19 field goal attempts after Todd Peterson joined Kris Brown as a victim of the Heinz Field kicking demons.

Is Reed that good? Probably not. But maybe he was just too raw to realize he wasn't supposed to have that kind of success. Reed doesn't have the strongest leg in the world, but he made the kicks he was supposed to - namely, those inside the 40, where he was 10-for-10 last season. Peterson, on the other hand, missed five kicks from less than 40 yards, something that drove head coach Bill Cowher crazy. Grade C

Josh Miller missed the team's last four regular season games and both playoff contests after suffering a torn rotator cuff. Miller averaged a career-low 41.0 yards per punt last season and his net average was only 33.6 yards, which also ranked him at the bottom of the league. Some of that can be attributed to the injury.

But Miller's kicking average has declined in each of the past four seasons, so the Steelers have to be concerned. On the plus side, he did place 18 kicks inside the 20, one more than he did in 2001. This is a big season for Miller. Is he on his way out or have the past couple of seasons been an anomaly? Grade C-

The Steelers keep looking for a way to replace long snapper Mike Schneck, but the veteran keeps holding off the competition year after year.

The Steelers would like to have a long snapper who can play the field in a pinch. Schneck, who was also listed as a linebacker in college, would have a tough time starting at that position for a good high school team. But he's a very good long snapper. Grade B

Former Akron University punter Mike Hayes hasn't kicked for anyone since 1998 and it's unlikely he would unseat Miller unless the veteran really flops. In that case, the Steelers would probably look for a veteran like Tom Rouen, who they signed when Miller was injured last season.

Rookie Jonathan Ruffin was signed as a free agent and will be the camp leg behind Reed. Ruffin made 62-of-79 career field goals in college and 129-of-134 PATs. He was the 2000 Lou Groza Award winner as the nation's top kicker.

Overall position analysis: The Steelers need Miller to bounce back in 2003 and Reed to continue to kick like he doesn't know he's not supposed to be that good. Schneck is a solid long snapper. The coverage teams need to be better this season, however. And Miller and Reed can help that by getting more hangtime and depth on their kicks. Grade C

Dale Lolley

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