Notebook: Another potential Pro Bowler?

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> The Steelers have three Pro Bowlers, but would have four if voters had taken a closer look at special teams. <br><br> Voted to the Pro Bowl as the AFC's special-teams coverage player was Adalius Thomas of the Baltimore Ravens. According to Steelers return specialist Antwaan Randle El, that position should've gone to a teammate. <br><br> "It should've been Chidi," he said of Chidi Iwuoma. "He's unreal."

Last Sunday against the New York Jets, Iwuoma, the Steelers' primary gunner in punt coverage, confounded Santana Moss, who went into the game with a 12.3-yard return average, which had been better than Randle El's. But because Iwuoma held Moss to a fair catch and 3 returns for 5 yards, Randle El is now fourth in the NFL with an average of 12.3 per punt return. Moss slipped to seventh at 11.2.

"Every time Moss got ready to touch that ball, he was right there," Randle El said. "That's what you need from a special-teams guy. You give that punt returner no chance. He was down there covering everything. Chidi's really good, and he's fast."

"It was real big because he's one of those guys who can make anything happen," said Iwuoma. "We definitely wanted to keep him contained."

Iwuoma said the Jets tried several different blocking schemes on him, but none worked. Is he mastering the art of covering punts?

"I think I'm doing a pretty good job, but mastering it? Ah, there's a lot to learn," he said. "I'm just trying to do a good job and make an impression somewhere."

The 5-foot-8, 182-pound Iwuoma is a back-up cornerback for the Steelers. Randle El, the Steelers' slot receiver, often faces him in practice. Could Iwuoma play in the regular defense?

"Yes," Randle El said. "I would put Chidi at nickel, the outside corner, and put Deshea (Townsend) inside because Chidi has quick feet and he can run. Chidi can play ball and he's got a lot of heart."

MORE FROM EL
Randle El was also asked whether he's surprised by the fine cornerback play of Townsend, who moved into the Steelers' starting lineup after the eighth game this season.

"No, it doesn't surprise me," Randle El said. "Deshea is the best corner we have. I've always said that. His technique is outstanding. Not to downplay any of the other corners, but I've just thought Deshea was always better than the three or four corners we have. It's his technique. He doesn't put himself in a bad situation."

Townsend, of course, has covered slot receivers - such as Randle El - throughout his six-year career as the Steelers' dime back.

"He can lock it down," Randle El said.

Last Sunday against the Jets, Townsend saved the Steelers several points. On back-to-back plays late in the first half, he forced intended receiver Moss out of the back of the end zone and then broke up an apparent touchdown pass to tight end Anthony Becht. In the fourth quarter, Townsend hustled across the field to push Curtis Martin out of bounds at the end of a 56-yard run. On the next play, the Jets fumbled to the Steelers.

"That was a great effort play," said Steelers secondary coach Willy Robinson. "Shutting it down is just not part of his character. Take a situational player that's not used to doing that, then all of the sudden he's out there every down doing it, he could've been fatigued. He could've been tired. He could've said 'Screw it,' but he didn't."

RETURN OF COOL BREES
San Diego is 1-8 when Drew Brees starts at quarterback. The eighth loss occurred last week against Green Bay. After sitting on the bench five weeks behind Doug Flutie, Brees returned to the Chargers' lineup and completed 28 of 48 passes for a career-high 363 yards and two touchdowns. He also turned the ball over three times, twice on fumbles. Here's what San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Tim Sullivan wrote about Brees after the game:

"On balance, he was baffling. With two games to go in their 2003 death march, the Chargers still can't say with any certainty whether they have found their quarterback of the future or if they are simply marking time until a better alternative materializes."

STAT CHATTER
The Chargers are 30th in the NFL defensively (25th run, 29th pass) and 16th offensively (11th run, 17th pass). The Steelers are 9th defensively (11th run, 10th pass) and 22nd offensively (31st run, 12th pass). … Tommy Maddox has thrown one pass in his career against the Chargers. In 1993, he threw a one-yard touchdown pass on a fake field goal. … Jerome Bettis needs 60 yards rushing to pass Marcus Allen for seventh place on the NFL's all-time rushing list and 129 to pass Jim Brown for sixth place. … TE Antonio Gates only played basketball at Kent State before signing with the Chargers as a free agent after last April's draft. He moved into the starting lineup Nov. 2 and has caught 14 passes for 251 yards since. Last week, Gates had 5 catches for 117 yards. … Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson needs 14 catches to become the first player in league history with 100 receptions and 1,000 yards rushing in the same season.

QUOTABLE STEELERS
Kendrell Bell on the Steelers' recent struggles against the run: "We're not getting overpowered or anything like that. Sometimes our aggressiveness gets the best of us."

Maddox asked if he had a comment about a national writer reporting that he wouldn't be back with the Steelers next season: "No. That's why he's a writer."

Hines Ward on taking so many hard hits this season: "Yeah, but I expect that. I work my tail off in the off-season because I know what my body's going to go through. The older I get the more I know my body's going to keep me there."

Alan Faneca on whether he'll attend the Sugar Bowl to watch his alma mater play Oklahoma: "I checked the LSU website and tried to get tickets. Man, they're selling them for too much, so I'm just going to party with my friends."


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