El Yea !, Special Teams Sensational

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> Special teams kill. Or at least they win football games. The Steelers were never so certain until after beating the Washington Redskins, 16-7, to improve to 10-1.

"I'm not saying our 10 wins are because our special teams did great," said kicker Jeff Reed. "But if you win the special-teams phase, and the field-position phase, I think you'll win the game."

It may not have held true for all 10 wins, but it certainly did for win No. 10.

The Steelers won on the strength of their special teams. All of them:
  • The punt team had one misfire but allowed James Thrash a long return of only 8 yards in four tries.
  • Reed made all three of his field-goal attempts - 33, 36 and 32 yards -- in a steady cross wind and on a loose surface.
  • The kickoff team allowed the Redskins to start, on average, at their 26-yard line. Their best start was the 30.
  • The kick return team had to play without its leader, Antwaan Randle El, but managed to return a pair of kickoffs to its own 30 and 27.
  • The punt return team did not have to play without its leader, Randle El, who was the game's top playmaker.

Randle El opened the game with a return of minus 1-yard, but quickly warmed up. He took his next return 60 yards before Marcus Washington ran him down at the Redskins 17. The Steelers followed by taking the lead on Reed's 33-yard field goal.

Randle El brought his next return back 43 yards before punter Tom Tupa pushed him out of bounds at the Washington 39. The Steelers took advantage of the field position and scored a touchdown to take a 10-0 lead early in the second quarter.

Randle El returned another punt 44 yards, but it was called back because of holding.

For the game, Randle El returned six punts for 111 yards, an average of 18.5.

"I think Antwaan Randle El is phenomenal," said Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, who nonetheless had Tupa punt to him each time.

Was Randle El pleased?

"No," he said. "I should've got in the end zone twice. It kind of bugs me because I think it happened last week and this week was really ridiculous on my part. I should've been in the end zone."

On the 60-yarder, Randle El thought he'd cleared the pack until "I felt heat on my shoulder," he said of Washington.

On the 43-yarder, Randle El thought he could beat Tupa outside. "I didn't think he was that long," Randle El said.

Regardless, Randle El appears to be back to the form that made him the AFC's most dangerous return man over the last 10 games last season.

"Randle El said it best," said special teams coach Kevin Spencer. "He said that we have new people and that they're getting comfortable working with each other. And we put some returns in where I told him just to make one move and go. So I think he feels good now. He's starting to shake and bake."

The Steelers figured special teams would play a key factor Sunday. With winds blowing west across the field from 15-20 miles per hour, the Steelers punted once when they could've attempted a 50-yard field goal and another time when they could've tried for a first down on fourth-and-3.

In the first instance, Chris Gardocki got a bad bounce after a high, popped-up punt and ended up with a 9-yarder to the Washington 24.

Early in the third quarter, on fourth-and-3 from the Washington 33, Gardocki punted to the 6-yard line, but a questionable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Chidi Iwuoma set the Redskins up at the 21, from where they drove for their only score.

Reed agreed with Spencer on both decisions, and obviously so did Bill Cowher.

"I was adamant about it," said Spencer. "When you're that far out and the wind was blowing towards our bench, it's really hard for Jeff to get a line. He almost has to hit them way outside right to have that thing get back to the middle. And you figure it's a 33-yard field goal. If he misses, they're going to get the ball at the 40 or so. Field position's huge. Against these guys, it's going to be a low-scoring game, so let's play the field-position battle. Let's punt the football."

After watching film during the week, Spencer expected Randle El to have a strong game because Tupa often out-punts his coverage. But what Spencer didn't expect was the outstanding coverage his units received from James Harrison, who practiced only once last week because of a shoulder injury. Harrison made 5 of the Steelers' 9 solo tackles in coverage. He also had 1 of 3 assists.

"He's just good," Spencer said. "What helps him is Clint Kriewaldt has been a real mentor. Clint will look at a film and he'll analyze it quicker than I will, so he sits down with James and they watch film together. And Sean Morey watches film with those guys, so I think it really helps."

So do special teams. That point was made clear in win No. 10.

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