Steelers Nation is rightly in an uproar over the team’s special teams failures which most recently gave the Bengals the 6 point margin which cemented their series sweep. Unfortunately, special teams snafus have a precedent in Pittsburgh, one whose familiarity does little to ease frustration.
A (Not So Pleasant) Stroll Down Memory Lane
Chuck Noll was the last in the NFL to hire a full time special teams head coach. What prompted him to change?
- 6 blocked punts in 1988, plus another errant snap in the mud at Cleveland Stadium at resulting in the ball being hiked 50 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Noll hired George Stewart in 1989, and the Steelers special teams improved significantly, so much that Bill Cowher’s decision not to retain him in 1992 raised eye brows.
Steelers fans lived to regret that decision. In 1992 John Guy’s special teams were normal.
- A year later, they gave up 3 punt returns for touchdowns, plus a blocked punt in the playoffs against Kansas City in overtime that cost them the game.
This was all the more ironic, given that Cowher cut his teeth in the NFL as a special teams coach. Ed Bouchette was on record as saying that special teams were “Cowher’s baby.”
Perhaps that explains something. Cowher hired Bobby April, and under him the Steelers special teams excelled.
Yet, April after coaching with the Steelers in 1994 and 1995, April opted to go back to native New Orleans.
Cowher replaced him with Ron Zook, who fielded decent special teams from 1996 to 1998. When Zook departed after the 1998 season to take a job in the college ranks, Cowher replaced him with Jay Hayes, who did an OK job in 1999, but it went down hill from there.
- Arguably, it was poor special teams play that cost the Steelers a playoff spot in 2000, as they contributed directly to losses to the Eagles and Giants
- Special teams reached the height of ignominy, in 2001, where the Patriots upset the Steelers in the AFC Championship on the strength of a punt a blocked field goal returned for a touchdown
Steelers Special Teams in the Mike Tomlin Era
Mike Tomlin, like Cowher, caught people’s attention when chose not to retain his predecessor’s special teams coach. Instead Tomlin replaced Kevin Spencer, who fielded fine special teams, with Bob Ligashesky.
Credit Joe Starkey for calling this one. On January 31, 2007 Starkey wrote this of Ligashesky:
Again, it's possible Ligashesky is going to become the special-teams version of Bill Belichick. He had some good years at Bowling Green. But if I'm the guy doing the hiring, and I'm looking at his recent job performance, I'm cringing.
In 2003, Ligashesky coached Pitt's special teams. The Panthers were last in the Big East in kickoff and punt returns. They also finished 116th in kickoff coverage, which might not seem bad until you consider 117 teams played Division I-A football.
In St. Louis this season, Ligashesky's units allowed an NFC-worst three kick-return touchdowns. The Rams somehow managed to finish below the Steelers in punt and kick return average.(27th and 26th, respectively) and had the 28th-best kickoff coverage team. The punt coverage was better -- 10th overall -- but allowed a touchdown. (Emphasis Added.)
The Steelers special teams were absolutely atrocious during Ligashesky’s first year as special teams coach, giving up TD’s both punts and kicks, costing the Steelers the Jet's game.
- They also gave up a kick off return for a TD in the playoffs against Jacksonville, giving the Jaguars 7 points in a game that would be decided by two.
Mike Tomlin determined that it was the Steelers personnel, and not Ligashesky’s tutelage that caused the Steelers special teams woes in 2007, and to his credit, they improved in 2008.
That Was Then This Is Now
Just nine games into the season the Steelers special teams have given up 3 touchdowns on kick off returns. Once against Cleveland, once against Minnesota, and once against Cincinnati.
- They also gave up a touchdown on a forced-fumble punt return against San Diego.
To that you can add the 7 points the Chargers got off of the on-sides kick they recovered. At the time it looked like they got caught with their pants pulled down. Mike Tomlin said they’d actually prepped their team to ready, which makes it worse.
What Ails the Steelers Special Teams?
It is hard to say what exactly is wrong with the Steelers special teams. First the word was that special teams weren’t the same without Andre Fraizer, who was out against Cleveland and Minnesota.
Of course Fraizer played against Cincinnati, and that did not prevent the Cincinnati from scoring a quick six on a kick off return.
They cut reserve linebacker Arnold Harrison today, in a move that appears to be related to his special teams performance. They’ve promoted Donavan Woods from the practice squad to take his place. Woods played some special teams while on the active roster in 2008, and his return is supposed to bolster the unit.
Of course that is what they said when they brought Carey Davis back after putting Frank “The Tank” summers on IR.
Will the Steelers get it together on special teams in 2009? It is hard to say.
- It is easy to say this, if they don’t the Steelers have no hope netting Lombardi Number Seven, even if they do slide into the playoffs.
Finally, when Tomlin decided to retain Ligashesky in 2008, Steel Curtain Rising gave him the benefit of the doubt. That was then. This is now.
- Curtain’s Call: Barring a dramatic turnaround on special teams, Ligashesky’s head has got to roll at seasons end. If not before.