Special times for Steelers' special teams

The Pittsburgh Steelers have wallowed in special teams coverage for the better part of the last decade, but it's a new era under their survivor of a special-teams coach.

PITTSBURGH – Since kick coverage has been a Steelers' problem for the better part of the last decade, the news that they'd finished first – first! – in kickoff coverage, and very close to that in punt coverage, could've been taken more joyously.

Particularly with a guy like Jeff Reed as unit captain.

But, alas, nothing.

"You throw a party, and the next thing you know Darren Sproles is ripping up the field," said Anthony Madison.

Madison's the team's top gunner. Teammates call him "Bama" but they could call him "Chidi II" after the great special teams captain of the Steelers' last championship season.

But for as well as Chidi Iwuoma and Sean Morey and Clint Kriewaldt and James Harrison played that season, the Steelers finished 18th in kickoff coverage and 23rd in punt coverage. And those have been typical Steelers rankings since Troy Brown carved them up in the 2001 AFC Championship Game.

However, this year's Steelers finished first in kickoff coverage and fourth in punt coverage. That type of reversal is almost like the Detroit Lions winning Super Bowl.

"I know. I know," laughed Madison. "It's a great accomplishment, considering where we came from last year. I think now we're somewhat of an asset to the team. We knew coming into this season that we had to play well to give our team a chance to win."

Last season, the Steelers were 16th in kickoff coverage and 14th in punt coverage, and fans couldn't understand why Mike Tomlin, after his first year, didn't change special-teams coaches.

Bob Ligashesky had come in with Tomlin without much of a resume. He was known locally as Pitt's one-time teams coach, and his one year in the NFL had been equally as mediocre as his next year, the one under Tomlin.

He was loud -- the players saw that from Ligashesky in 2007. And he used a lot of toys. He also used a lot of time, but with little results.

But Ligashesky quieted down this season, locked up the shed that housed the balls-on-sticks, and apparently kicked some rear end, and – voila! -- not only held onto his job, he turned in a dynamite season.

So what does the No. 1 coverage ranking mean to Ligashesky?

"It means we're giving our opponents a longer field," he said with the utmost seriousness.

That's been Ligashesky's style this season. He's not looking for the media, or any special attention, he just does his job. But surely, there had to be a schematic change. What was the first thing Ligashesky did to tweak the units in the off-season?

"I didn't do anything," he said. "We're doing the same thing, only we're doing it better."

Ligashesky waved off any further attention by giving all the credit to his assistant Amos Jones. His key players backed him up on the first point.

"We didn't change anything. We knew last year we didn't play well at all," said Carey Davis. "This year we just had the mindset to go down there and tackle the guy every time."

Where was that mindset the last, oh, eight years?

"Some of the new guys helped," Davis said. "(Keyaron) Fox coming in definitely brought a big lift to the special teams. Bama has been playing lights out all year. He and Fox are really busting their butts. So is Pat."

That would be Patrick Bailey, known as "The White Flash" to teammates. He's the undrafted rookie linebacker out of Duke who made the team because of a penchant for tackling return men. Bailey not only made the team, he won the team's Rookie of the Year honors for his 12 tackles in coverage. The one that delivered the vote for him was the killshot he hung on Yamon Figurs of the Ravens in the second meeting.

"Yeah, that was my favorite," said the shy rookie, who then snuck a peak around the room as if he'd just broken some kind of anti-trashtalk code.

"But it's always going to be a challenge," he said in recovery. "I just try to play the best I can. If it happens, it happens."

The 12 tackles ranked Bailey in a tie for third on special teams with Harrison, who plays mainly on the punt team. The runaway tackles leaders this year were Madison with 25 and Fox with 21.

Against the Ravens and their 31st-ranked kickoff return team, the Steelers allowed a mere 21.1 yards per kickoff return.

The Ravens' 18th-ranked punt-return unit did pop a 46-yarder in the second game, and perhaps that's why Captain Reed's party is still on ice.

"We may have had a good regular season," said Madison. "But it's a whole new ballgame right now."

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