Notebook: Quincy licking his chops

PITTSBURGH – Bill Cowher bemoaned the Steelers' special-teams performance this week, but they might be running up against a group that's just as bad, if not worse, in the Broncos.

While the Pittsburgh Steelers rank 30th in the league covering kickoffs, the Denver Broncos are dead last in returning them. They tried Quincy Morgan as a return man, but last week used rookie Brian Clark. He returned a pair of kickoffs 27 and 23 yards.

"There aren't a lot of teams scoring on them, so they haven't returned a lot," said Clint Kriewaldt, a Steelers special-teams co-captain. "I hope Quincy's back there. It'd be fun going against him."

Morgan surprised the Steelers and perhaps himself by emerging as a threat on kickoff returns last season. He led the team with an average of 25.3 yards per return. He was the last player cut by the Steelers before this season, and the current group is averaging 22.7 yards per return.

"When we lost him I was a little disappointed. I saw what he did last year," Kriewaldt said. "He's a quality returner. You take away him and then we lose Antwaan [Randle El] so our two top returners are gone."

In the return game, the Steelers rank 25th in average starting position after kickoffs and 32nd in opponents' net punting. The Broncos are 32nd and 28th, respectively. Morgan averages 17.8 per kickoff return and Darrent Williams averages only 7.3 per punt return. Still, anyone returning a kick against the Steelers must be considered armed and dangerous.

"The coaches can coach all they want but us guys, we've got to take care of that," Kriewaldt said. "It's really difficult and frustrating, what's going on. It's definitely something, since I've been here, that hasn't happened before. In my three years we've had pretty dominating coverage teams and it's real frustrating where we're at right now in the kicking game."

Injuries and personnel turnover have contributed. Of the top 10 special-teams tacklers last season, only four remain. Even the replacements, such as Arnold Harrison, have been injured.

"The good news is most of our injuries haven't been to starters," Kriewaldt said. "Hopefully it doesn't come to the point where some of the starters get hurt at the positions where their key backup got hurt. Then you're looking at a guy that really has no experience come in there and try to play."

AND THE LINE, TOO

Cowher also complained about the performance of his offensive line this week, and, again, the Broncos have a similar problem.

Starting left tackle Matt Lepsis was put on injured reserve after a knee injury two weeks ago. Last Sunday he was replaced not by veteran Adam Meadows, but by 6-foot-8, 300-pounder Erik Pears, who made his first NFL start.

One of the few times Pears didn't receive help from tight ends or running backs, Colts end Dwight Freeney had half a sack and forced a fumble.

The brother of former Steelers practice-squad player Morgan Pears, Erik Pears spent last season on the Broncos' practice squad after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State. Pears was named All-NFL Europe in the spring and will make his second NFL start this afternoon.

RED ZONE

The Steelers have scored 12 touchdowns in 24 red-zone opportunities this season to rank 21st in the NFL. The Broncos are second defensively in the red zone.

The Steelers have allowed 10 touchdowns in 22 red-zone tries to rank 11th. The Broncos have scored touchdowns 60 percent of the time to rank seventh.

Turnovers have hurt the Steelers this season. Their ratio is minus-five, but the Broncos haven't been much better at minus-two.

QUOTABLE

Steelers defensive lineman Chris Hoke on a perceived lack of discipline on the team:

"No. I think you see some of these penalties, like the personal fouls, but that's playing intense. Those things aren't about losing discipline. Guys are playing, flying to the ball, and those things are going to happen. That's one of those things that just aren't going our way right now. We've done those things in the past but right now they're working against us. If we keep working, good things are going to happen. They gotta happen."


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