Special-teams slumps eerily similar

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> Kevin Spencer was named special teams coach of the Steelers on Feb. 13, 2002, or 17 days after the greatest special teams debacle in team history.

In their loss in the 2001 AFC championship game, the Steelers allowed two special-teams touchdowns, Nos. 2 and 3 that post-season.

It marked the end for then-coach Jay Hayes and the beginning for Spencer, who partied with his Pittsburgh neighbors sometime in the spring of 2002.

"When they found out I coach special teams for the Steelers, they all genuflected and made the sign of the cross," Spencer said at the time. "I mean, I know what I'm getting into."

He doesn't know the half of it, but he did get a good taste last Saturday.

In the first round of the playoffs, the Steelers allowed a 75-yard punt return to Santana Moss, but it wasn't enough for the New York Jets. The Steelers won and advanced, sparing Spencer any real headaches.

Actually, the two situations are eerily similar. The 2001 Steelers also allowed a big return in their first-round playoff game. Baltimore's Jermaine Lewis returned a punt 88 yards for a touchdown, but it wasn't enough to help the Ravens beat the Steelers.

The meltdown followed the next week when Troy Brown returned a punt 55 yards and Antwan Harris returned a blocked field goal 49 yards for touchdowns as the New England Patriots beat the Steelers, 24-17, and went on to the Super Bowl.

The stats of the four games prior to the 2001 AFC title game foreshadowed that meltdown. In those four games, Steelers opponents averaged 22.4 yards per kickoff return and 17 yards per punt return. The Steelers also gave up a touchdown to the Cincinnati Bengals on a botched field-goal attempt.

This year's four-game stats prior to the AFC title game are similar. The Steelers have allowed opponents an average of 25.1 per kickoff return and an average of 14.3 yards per punt return.

They've allowed touchdowns to Moss and Willie Ponder, while Jerricho Cotchery (30 yards), Terrence McGee (40) and B.J. Sams (42) also had substantial kickoff returns.

Spencer met with a group of reporters after one practice this week and allayed their fears. But it was a one-and-done press conference for the special teams coach, who jogged past another group of waiting reporters the next day.

Spencer's players, though, don't see the recent slump as a problem.

"It's very simple when you watch it," said long-snapper Mike Schneck. "You see what mistakes you make and you try not to make them again. That's the approach we're taking. There's nothing to panic about because we've had great coverage in all of our phases except a couple times on kickoffs when we were missing a lot of guys. So there's nothing to panic about."

Special-teams coverage aces such as James Harrison, Clark Haggans, Clint Kreiwaldt, Brett Keisel and Verron Haynes have missed time down the stretch for a variety of reasons. But they were all back for the game against the Jets. So, was Moss' touchdown a cause for anxiety or just a wake-up call?

"It just let people know they can't take anything for granted," said gunner Chidi Iwuoma. "That's just one of those things that happened. In the back of your mind you know it can happen, but when it actually happened you're like 'Whoa.' It's a wake-up call, you know what I mean?"

Iwuoma was a just a fan when he watched the 2001 title game. He remembered the special-teams gaffes, but hasn't heard any of his current teammates bring them up.

"Not at all," he said. "I mean, everyone knows what happened but nobody talks about it. You want to put that in the back of your mind but always be aware. I don't think anyone on special teams wants to make that the focus. We've been doing pretty well for the most part this year. Guys just want to keep that going."

This year, the Steelers rank in the middle of the special-teams pack. They are 12th in punt coverage, 15th in kickoff coverage, 17th in kickoff returns and 18th in punt returns.

In 2001, the respective rankings were 25th in punt coverage, 15th in kickoff coverage, 29th in kickoff returns and 23rd in punt returns.

Of course, the Steelers aren't playing their 2001 team. They're playing the Patriots, who rank highly only in kickoff returns. Speedster Bethel Johnson leads a return unit that ranks 9th in the NFL. In punt returns, the Patriots are 29th, and in both punt and kickoff coverage they are 28th.

Former Steelers punter Josh Miller, now with the Patriots, has a net average of 33.7 to put the Patriots 29th in net punting. The Steelers are 5th behind Chris Gardocki's 37.4 net average.

Steelers placekicker Jeff Reed has made 19 consecutive field goals. Two-time Pro Bowler Adam Vinatieri of the Patriots is fifth all-time in the NFL with an 82.1 percent accuracy rate.

"I think we both have good units," Iwuoma said. "I know our guys are just going to fly around."

Spencer, and his neighbors, certainly hope so.

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