Steelers hold edges on special teams

PITTSBURGH – Sean Morey, with a notebook this thick, is one of the more studious and learned kick coverers in the NFL. After all, he's an Ivy Leaguer.

But the Pittsburgh Steelers' co-captain had to dig deep into that notebook for the answer to a question about the Denver Broncos' kick returners.

The question was: Who are they?

Morey leafed through his notes before finding the right page.

"Let's see," he started. "They have a kid named Adams and … a kid who's been hurt … Darrent Williams. Yeah, he was hurt but he'll probably be back. He had one return last week. He's pretty explosive. He can run, cut, has speed and quickness. Eighty-one (Charlie Adams) is a taller guy who's fast once he gets going."

Very helpful, but would Morey have to look through that big ol' notebook had the return man been, say, Dante Hall?

"What do you mean?" Morey asked.

Is it a good sign for the Steelers that he doesn't know the Broncos' kick returners?

"Well the fact is he hadn't played," Morey said of rookie Darrent Williams. "But when we play him we plan to see both guys. It won't change our approach. We'll still cover fast, aggressive, get to the ball, read the returns. They do a bunch of multiple returns so it's tough to just pin your ears back and go after them. You sort of have to read the returns and make sure you see the wedge the correct way and gang tackle."

Williams injured his groin late in the season and missed the last three regular-season games. He came back last week and returned one kickoff 19 yards.

Williams leads the Broncos with a 23.9 average on 18 kickoffs. His sidekick is 6-foot-2 inch Charlie Adams of Mechanicsburg, Pa. He averages 21.8 per kickoff return, as does Roc Alexander.

As a team, the Broncos rank 25th in kickoff returns and 28th in average starting position (25.7-yard line). The Steelers rank 21st in returns and 7th in average start (30.1-yard line), but have been without the league's No. 8 kickoff returner, Quincy Morgan (25.3), who was injured against Cincinnati.

Morgan has been replaced by Ike Taylor, who teams with Ricardo Colclough. The Steelers have averaged 21.3 per kickoff return in the playoffs, a notch below their regular-season average of 21.6. They could use a shot in the arm. Are you listening, Fast Willie Parker?

"I want to play kick returns," Parker said. "But they don't want to put me out there."

Why not?

"I don't know," he said. "I think that's another opportunity, a good opportunity."

The Steelers won't have much of an edge over the Broncos on kickoff returns, but Antwaan Randle El gives them a big edge on punt returns.

Randle El is the only player to return two punts for touchdowns this season. He's 6th in the NFL with a 10.2 average. The Broncos are led again by Williams (8.7) and Adams (8.3) and rank 11th as a team.

The Steelers have edges in four of the five special-teams categories. Their kicker, Jeff Reed, has made 83 percent of his kicks while Jason Elam has struggled this season for the Broncos by making 75 percent of his kicks. Elam, of course, works in kicker-friendly Invesco Field while Reed works in the kicker's nightmare that is Heinz Field.

The Steelers also have a better kickoff coverage unit. They rank 13th (21.6) in opponent's returns while the Broncos rank 29th (25.3).

The Broncos have the edge in punting. Todd Sauerbrun is sixth in the NFL in net punting (40.2) while Chris Gardocki of the Steelers is 30th (36.8).

Gardocki and Reed have increased their averages slightly in the post-season, but not as significantly the Steelers' coverage teams. Against the Colts and Bengals, the Steelers allowed 19.9 per kickoff return and 3.3 per punt return. It says so right there in Morey's big book.

"It's critical at this time of the year," Morey said. "I remember Desmond Howard was the MVP of a Super Bowl when he returned two kicks for a touchdown. Things like that, plays like that, can swing a game in an instant. You can't allow that to happen on coverage. You can't relax."

Even if you've never heard of the guy with the ball.

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