Psst ... Spencer's boys coming on strong

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> Kevin Spencer, remember him? He was the guy brought in to fix the special teams that had kept the Steelers from their appointment to the Super Bowl following the 2001 season. <br><br> Well, Spencer didn't pull it off, so no one paid much attention to him this year. And that's how he likes it. An approaching reporter with good intentions is akin to poisonous gas for the superstitious assistant coach.

"Everyone was talking to me before the Seattle game and they get a punt block," Spencer said in the hope of misdirecting the attention. He was too late.

"I know something bad's going to happen in San Francisco now. I just hope I don't have to put a finger in the dike and the bottom doesn't fall out."

If Spencer's nervous, his special teams must be playing well. Bill Cowher said they are. The head coach went on an extended jag about the special teams during his last press conference. Goodbye, anonymity.

"We want to be anonymous," Spencer said. "This is what we should do. This is my job. I'm really proud the guys are playing well and that the coach gives us the support and is always talking to the guys about how important it is, but I'd just as soon do my job in anonymity and not have to talk to you guys very much."

At 3-6, it's difficult to find a bright spot with the Steelers, but special teams certainly is one of them.

In the win against Arizona last Sunday, the Steelers' average starting position after kickoffs was the 41-yard line. The Cardinals started, on average, at the 20-yard line.

The Steelers also averaged 17.4 more net yards per punt than did the Cardinals, and that was due primarily to the 52-yard punt return for a touchdown by Antwaan Randle El.

The biggest special teams play, though, may have been Larry Foote's tackle of Cardinals return ace Josh Scobey at the 19-yard line early in the third quarter.

"That hit got us jacked up," said linebacker James Farrior. "The defense went out there all fired up and we got a fumble a couple plays later."

Kimo von Oelhoffen recovered the fumble and the Steelers scored a touchdown on the next play to go ahead by 14-3. Chalk one up for Spencer's boys.

"What you find out is you can't teach experience," Spencer explained. "We have some second-year guys who are on a continuum and they're getting better. Then you throw in a guy like Clint (Kriewaldt), who brings a lot of experience to the table, and Clark (Haggans), so it's just a good mix right now. They're playing with confidence. They have a good attitude. They know it's important. It's a ride. We've just got to hang on now."

The Steelers are currently seventh in the NFL in average starting position (30.2) after a kickoff. They rank 11th in opponents' average starting field position on kickoffs (27.3). The latter number is a 23 percent increase over last year, and it can be directly attributed to Jeff Reed's leg. Last year, Reed's kickoffs averaged 56.6 yards, which was 30th in the league. This year he's fourth with an average kickoff of 64.5 yards.

On Tuesday, Cowher attributed the difference to veering away from the directional kickoffs he'd always favored. Reed explained how the change came about.

"When I first got here he asked me what my best kick was. I told him to just let me kick it and most likely it's going to end up down the middle, between the hashes. He said, 'Alright we'll see what you can do,' and I was a little inconsistent with it. So we went to directional kicking to keep it away from their main return man. That was fine but I was losing a lot of distance, a good five yards. So in training camp he asked again if I wanted to just kick it away and I said whatever. So he let me do that. I started out inconsistent and now I've been consistent and feel comfortable doing it."

Reed averages 3.9 seconds of hang time, which is what NFL coaches seek.

"He hit one that stayed up 4.1 last week," said Spencer. "That's huge nowadays with these balls. That's the one Foote made the hit on the backside."

So it was Reed's deep kickoff that set up von Oelhoffen's fumble return that set up the touchdown? Smart of the coaching staff to let Reed just plant and boom the ball down the middle of the field.

"I'm at the point now where you don't want to become a genius and try and do something just to be a guru," Spencer said. "The guys are doing well. Let's kick this thing down the middle and let the guys play. We're not going to fool with it right now."

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