Notebook: Dealing with fumble-itis

After losing three fumbles last Sunday, the Steelers reached seven for the season, only two behind the nine they lost last season. How can the problem be rectified?

"Hold on to the ball," said wide receiver Santonio Holmes.

Or ...

"Hold onto the ball," said running back Willie Parker.

Haven't we heard that before?

"There really isn't anything you can do to imitate the game," Parker said. "You can practice and practice, but that's about it."

Well, there's the gauntlet drill. There's also the old carry-the-ball-to-class routine.

"I did that [expletive] in college and it didn't work," said Holmes, who, along with Parker, has fumbled three times in the last two games.

"I just tried it to see what it was like," Holmes said. "I was a freshman in college and I had more free time to walk around with the ball than I did in high school. So I just wanted to try it and see what it was like. I wouldn't say it helped me hold onto the ball."

What about running the gauntlet? Bill Belichick runs the drill when the New England Patriots are fumbling too much.

"The gauntlet drill is just something that will beat up your body," said Parker. "Those little spiky things you run through? Yeah, the gauntlet drill has these spikes that you run through and if you don't run hard enough you'll get stuck in between it. That thing will be scratching up your forearms."

Did it help?

"Nope."

The Pittsburgh Steelers haven't done anything but preach ball security this week. Running backs coach Dick Hoak doesn't dwell on fumbling problems.

"It becomes a bigger issue when you make an issue out of it," Hoak said. "I mean, if you want a guy to run the football and use his ability, and you keep stressing ‘don't put the ball on the ground.' – not that it should be overlooked – but if you keep stressing that they have to hold onto the ball, you get to the point where you're running now and all you're thinking about is holding onto the football and you can't run anymore. You can't react. Willie hasn't had that much of a problem fumbling throughout his career, other than the last two games. Willie hasn't been a fumbler."

Has Hoak tried drills in the past?

"No," he said. "We've used drills like that but not for fumbling. Just when they are doing drills, and when they are running, you try to teach them to keep the ball up, keep their elbow tucked in, keep it high, don't be careless with it, pointing out where they start getting careless with it and start waving it."

KICK COVERAGE

In the first half last week, the Steelers allowed the Falcons an average of 34.4 yards per kickoff return. In the second half they allowed an average of 25 yards per return. The last two Steelers kickoffs were returned to the Falcons 18 and 22.

"I think you just get a feel for the guys that are blocking you and their scheme. You get a bead on what they're trying to do," said teams co-captain Sean Morey. "The sense of urgency picked up and we got a good feeling for what they were trying to do. We just tried to cover fast, downhill, aggressive and try to hit them in the mouth. Hopefully we'll carry that over into Oakland."

COMPETITIVE SPEED

Hines Ward's 70-yard reception against the Falcons wasn't a touchdown until he outran DeAngelo Hall, who was timed before his draft at less than 4.2 in the 40 on Virginia Tech's track. How fast does that make Ward?

"As fast as I need to be," he said. "Some guys can be straight track speed and some guys have football speed. My game's not predicated on speed. I'm fast enough."

Ward said he recently checked with the Steelers on his listed 40 time with the team as he came out of college.

"It was 4.49," said the last pick of the 1998 third round. "The only problem I had coming out was I didn't have an ACL, so I was a high risk."

SPECIAL K

Chris Kemoeatu will play for the third consecutive week and may even start today. He rotated quarters with Kendall Simmons last Sunday until Simmons was yanked for good midway through the third quarter.

"I had a couple mental errors," said Kemoeatu. "It was mostly technique stuff. On the front line you've got to be detailed. The stuff's got to be specific, as far as steps and hand placement, so I had a few technique problems. Other than that it was okay."

Did he meet his own expectations?

"Yeah. It's just like practice," he said. "In practice we do more than what we expect them to do. They give us more looks than the looks they actually give us on Sundays, so when it gets to Sundays it's just like practice, and maybe even less."


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