Breaking down the Steelers/The specialists

The 2004 Pittsburgh Steelers intrigued us, made us smile and surprised even their harshest critics. <br> Ultimately, however, they disappointed.

But there is plenty to be excited about for next season. The core of the team is under contract for next season and the Steelers will open the 2005 season as one of the favorites to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

This will be the final position-by-position look at the Steelers from 2004.

Today: The specialists.

One of the more curious moves of the last offseason was the Steelers' release of punter Josh Miller and the signing of Chris Gardocki to take his place.

Gardocki and Miller are the same age and had nearly the same punting statistics throughout their lengthy NFL careers. Yet the Steelers felt the need to release Miller, eating the remainder of his signing bonus, and sign Gardocki to a contract worth more than a $1 million per season.

After a season of watching Gardocki punt, it wasn't hard to see why the Steelers felt the need for a change. Though Gardocki no longer has a booming leg, he is very consistent with his kicks. And in more than 1,000 career punts, he's never had one blocked.

Miller, meanwhile, was a boom and bust-type kicker, booting one ball 60 yards and hitting the next one 35. In addition, he had had a punt blocked in each of his final three seasons with the Steelers.

While Gardocki was, indeed an upgrade, Miller had the last laugh, hooking on with the New England Patriots soon after his release by the Steelers. He now owns a Super Bowl ring - or at least he will when the Patriots receive theirs.

Placekicker Jeff Reed began the 2004 season with a lot to prove. Reed's 2003 campaign, his first full season in the NFL, was less than spectacular, causing some to wonder if he was the long-term answer to the team's placekicking problems.

Reed put those doubts to rest with an outstanding 2004 season, one in which he finished with 21 consecutive made field goals.

But the Steelers face a dilemma with Reed, who is a restricted free agent. If they don't tender Reed a decent offer, they stand a good chance of losing him.

Since he signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent, if the Steelers offer Reed a low tender, he could sign elsewhere for a contract the Steelers might be unwilling to match and they would receive nothing in return.

They could offer him a higher tender and thus secure more hope of retaining him, but that would also lock him in at a much higher salary for 2005.

Their best bet would be to sign him to a new contract before he hits the free agent market, something Reed may not want to do if he thinks he can get a better deal somewhere else.

Longsnapper Mike Schneck has long been an object of scorn for Steelers fans. Many hate keeping a player around who does nothing but snap the ball on punts, field goals and extra points. But year-after-year Schneck has been able to hold off challengers and stick with the team.

Schneck is signed for the 2005 season and there's no reason to believe he'll be replaced, even though the Steelers will likely bring yet another challenger to training camp in July.

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