Chargers' Darren Sproles broke free for a 63-yard kickoff return in last postseason's divisional round. Defensive back Jim Leonhard sprinted for a 45-yard punt return to the Steelers' 10-yard line in the AFC Championship game that put the Ravens in great field position to score their first touchdown.
Special teams. For quite some time this phase of the organization had been considered a “liability.”
Few can forget, the blocked field goal (and illegal forward lateral) that made the difference in the Steelers 2001 AFC Championship loss to the Patriots or cornerback Ricardo Colclough's muffed punt in a loss to Bengals a couple of years ago.
It has been said that former coach Bill Cowher had focus sparingly on special teams during offseason training activities (OTA's),doing nothing during training camp.
However, newly hired head coach Mike Tomlin devoted not only the OTA's but his first training camp to special teams, something the veterans were not accustomed.
Unfortunately the results in 2007 were miserable as the Steelers finished the season ranked 30th in kickoff coverage, 20th in kickoff returns and 30th in punt returns—in addition to allowing a pair of return touchdowns, one being the 73-yard return by Arizona wide receiver Steve Breaston.
The Steelers lost that game by a touchdown.
After allowing three kickoffs of 90-plus yards and a half-dozen 44-plus in 2007, the 2008 season saw special teams allowing one return for approximately 44-yards, reducing the opposition’s average from 30 yards per carry in 2007 to 26.4 yards per carry.
According to Chuck Finder of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the Steelers finished 2008 with the AFC's No. 1 special teams in both kick-and punt-return defense.
In addition, the coverage groups were consistent in allowing 19.3 yards per kickoff return and 6.2 yards per punt return without surrendering a touchdown during the regular season.
Special teams finished the year as NFL's No. 1 kickoff defense and No. 4 in punt defense.
In 2007, the Steelers ranked No. 16 and No. 14 in those respective categories.
Some of the credit has to go to special teams coordinator, Bob Ligashesky and his assistant Amos Jones.
Ligashesky is entering his third season as special teams coordinator. He replaced Kevin Spencer, who left with Ken Whisenhut to be the Arizona Cardinals' special teams coordinator.
Ligashesky has been noted to be vocal, animated and expressive on the practice field, and tends to get wrapped up in the action as his players.
His assistant Amos Jones began his NFL career as an assistant in 2007 the same year Ligashesky was hired by Tomlin.
Jones has worked previously with Tomlin and offensive line coach Jim Zierlein during the early 90's at the University of Cincinnati.
Good coaching is important, but the bulk of the credit should go to the players.
During free agency the Steelers spent considerable time re-signing their own players.
Player retention—especially of the best and most desirable—is a key challenge in any NFL team today.
Continuity and consistency is a key component to the all-round success of any team.
So the Steelers were busy re-signing and retaining some of their top aces such as cornerback Anthony Madison.
During the regular season, Madison led the team with 25 special teams tackles and in case of injury adds depth at the corner position.
The team agreed to a one-year $1.01 million deal with him.
Backup linebacker Keyaron Fox, another special teams standout last season, received a $380,000 signing bonus and agreed to a two-year, $1.8 million contract.
Fox was second with 21 tackles on special teams, despite missing three games as a backup linebacker and is considered one of the Steelers best special teams players.
He was an unrestricted free agent from Kansas City last year.
Andre Frazier is third on the team in tackles with 12. As an unrestricted free agent, he re-signed to a two-year, $1.375 million contract with a $125,000 signing bonus on March 12.
It's been said that, Frazier is as key as anybody. He doesn't complain about not making tackles and he finds himself double-teamed every game.
How about an undrafted rookie from Duke who earned the 2008 Steeler rookie of the year award? That would be Patrick Bailey.
Released in August before the start of the season, Bailey signed to the practice squad the next day. He signed to the 53-man roster Sept. 20 but was released Oct. 4. He rejoined the 53-man roster Oct. 25 and has been active since.
Bailey made his mark on special teams despite missing four games while not on the roster, and tied for third on the team with 12 special teams tackles, eight of them solo.
Arnold Harrison, an unrestricted free agent, was re-signed to a one-year contract. Last season he played in 13 games and finished with 13 tackles
But it doesn’t end there.
Other contributors include running backs Carey Davis and Gary Russell, corner William Gay and linebacker Lawrence Timmons who had 16 tackles last season.
In addition, the Steelers signed the following players to Reserve/Futures contracts: WR Dallas Baker, CB Roy Lewis, RB Stefan Logan, S Ryan Mundy, FB Ryan Powdrell, TE Dezmond Sherrod, RB Justin Vincent, WR Brandon Williams and LB Donovan Woods.
Woods, an undrafted rookie linebacker, registered four tackles (two solo) as a deep reserve for the Steelers this season.
At placekicker, seventh-year kicker Jeff Reed was 27-of-31 on field goals during the regular season.
In the AFC Championship, Reed was 3-for-3 on field goals, connecting on kicks of 34, 42, and 46 yards in less-than-ideal conditions. Incredibly, Reed does not have a touchback on 12 kickoffs during the 2008 postseason.
Punter Dan Sepulveda was taken off injured-reserve after suffering a season-ending torn right ACL. He is expected to be back for the 2009 season.
Punter Mitch Berger (41.3 avg.) was competent but unspectacular during the regular season. In the playoffs this 36-year-old journeyman did not kick well. We should not expect him back.
Fierce competition is expected amongst long snappers this training camp.
Greg Warren returned from injured reserve due to a torn ACL in the Oct. 26 game against the New York Giants.
A restricted free agent in the 2008 offseason, Warren signed a three-year, $2.3 million contract with the Steelers on March 25.
The Steelers signed first-time player Jared Retkofsky in January because he did a good job the rest of the season subbing for the injured Warren.
Formerly moving furniture for Bonilla Moving Company in Texas, Retkofsky was signed as an undrafted free agent after the botched snap involving linebacker James Harrison during the Giants game.
In the April draft, the Steelers may look into both punt and kickoff returners. In today’s NFL, both of these positions have become specialties.
Santonio Holmes was not sensational on punt returns during the regular season, averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt, but against the Chargers in the playoffs, he showed big-play ability if given some space.
Holmes also had a nice 25-yard punt return against a good Ravens punt coverage team in the AFC Championship game.
As a kickoff returner, reserve running back Gary Russell (23.2 kickoff return average) is not a prime candidate to break a long return, but he has a sure-hand and is not afraid to hit a hole.
Fellow running backs Mewelde Moore and Carey Davis have also attempted kickoff returns during the playoffs. Moore was signed because of his previous history with the 2004-2007 Vikings with two punt returns for scores.
That expectation may be limited as Moore has been battling an ankle injury. So that would leave Russell as the top candidate for kickoff returns.