Coverage units under gun

The Steelers' special teams floundered in the opener against the Miami Dolphins and changes are expected this week. But one change won't be the return of coverage ace Chidi Iwuoma, who scheduled a tryout with the Cleveland Browns.

PITTSBURGH – Jacksonville Jaguars rookie running back Maurice Drew might be better known as one of college football's greatest punt returners.

Last year at UCLA, Drew set an NCAA record with an average of 28.5 yards per punt return, smashing the old mark of 25.9 set back in 1951.

Drew also set a UCLA record by returning four punts for touchdowns last season, but the all-time NCAA season record is five and it's held by Drew's current teammate, Chad Owens. He's the Jaguars' first-team punt returner.

Suffice to say the Jaguars have plenty of potential waiting down the field.

That potential hasn't been tapped in the NFL yet, since both players are novices. Drew, the 5-6 ¾ rookie, returned only one punt for 10 yards this preseason. Owens, the bigger return man at 5-7 3/8, spent most of last season on the practice squad and returned five punts this preseason at a 9.4 clip.

Neither has returned a punt longer than 16 yards in the preseason, or in last week's opener, but that only means time is ticking on these two bombs and that the Steelers should be concerned.

Last week the Steelers were scorched by Miami punt returner Wes Welker. He returned three punts for 79 yards with his 47-yarder setting up the Dolphins' first touchdown. He also returned punts for 14 and 18 yards against a unit that had just released coverage ace Chidi Iwuoma.

Did the Steelers miss Iwuoma?

"Don't go there," warned special teams coach Kevin Spencer.

Earlier in the week, Coach Bill Cowher dismissed the notion that the release of Iwuoma hurt the team. Cowher also absolved Spencer of blame and told the players to put the blame on him. Cowher believes the problems arose more from the lack of preseason playing time for coverage regulars such as James Harrison and Clint Kriewaldt.

Iwuoma was replaced last week at left gunner by Sean Morey, who was last year's fullback, or personal protector as the Steelers call the position. The other gunner last week was rookie Anthony Smith, who dabbled at the position as a college freshman before being tabbed as a gunner this preseason. He won the job by wiping out Philadelphia return man J.R. Reed with a hit in the third preseason game.

"I think that's why they kept me there," said Smith. "That was my first game out. Usually you get double or single-blocked and I had a single-block that time. I beat the guy and I didn't see the returner throw up his hand for the fair catch. He never did. So I was like well, I'm right in his face and he didn't throw it up yet, so let's take a shot. It felt real good."

It would've felt better had it come in the regular season. Smith didn't make a tackle against the Dolphins and neither did Morey. Is it fair to say the Steelers missed Iwuoma last week?

"No matter what team you're on, anytime you go into a game without a guy like Chidi Iwuoma I think you're going to feel the effects," said Morey. "I mean he's a guy that's been there and he's played at a high level. He's been very consistent and he's tough, aggressive, fast. No matter what team you are, if you have a guy like Chidi, and then don't go into a game with him, you're going to feel the effects. Now, we're going into our second week and I think guys understand that we have to play better, be a lot more consistent and a little better covering fast and aggressive."

Changes in the punt coverage team are expected. An easy one would be moving Morey back to fullback and installing a new left gunner.

"I'm probably most effective as a personal protector," Morey said. "I've played it for the last two years here and I'm pretty comfortable with the protection schemes and reading people's return schemes. If I can read their return schemes based on the way they rush -- and I can see their drops because I'm right in the middle – and I know where they're trying to return the ball, I can cut off those return routes so he can't use his blockers and we can force him into our help. It's something that I've sort of embraced a couple years ago and I've been able to get a lot of reps at it. I have some experience now after the last couple of years and I feel like that's helped me be a lot more confident and I think that's a good position for me."

And that would leave a gunner spot open for a reserve such as Ricardo Colclough, who predictably bombed as a punt returner in the Steelers' first attempt to replace Antwaan Randle El.

After an awful training camp fielding punts, Colclough misjudged a punt last week and then fumbled and kicked it as he tried to recover. Rookie Santonio Holmes returned the rest of the punts after another rookie, Willie Reid, had been deactivated after returning punts most of the preseason.

"I'm not disappointed. I'm not discouraged," said Morey, the special teams captain. "I think that as a unit I just know there's room for improvement and we will improve. That's pretty much the bottom line. This past week we put our defense in some tough situations and we appreciate that they went out there and sort of had our back. They made some great stands and some great plays. As a team that's going to happen. Hopefully we can return the favor this week."


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