Feast or famine for Steelers special teams

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PITTSBURGH (AP) - When it comes to the Pittsburgh Steelers special teams this season, they’re either making “splash plays,” or they’re getting all wet.

Pittsburgh has benefited from a few momentum-changing moments _ also known, in the vernacular of coach Mike Tomlin, as “splash plays” _ from its kick and punt return units. But it’s also been hurt by gaffes that had costly potential.

Sunday’s 38-17 win against the Tennessee Titans provided examples of each. The electrifying Antonio Brown’s 52-yard kickoff return, for example, set up a touchdown that put the Steelers ahead for good. A successful fake field goal pass also set up a score.

But Pittsburgh’s most memorable special teams play, for the second consecutive week, was having a kick blocked. This time it was a Daniel Sepulveda punt. There was a successful Tennessee onside kick, too.

It seems as if, this season, there’s been little middle ground on Pittsburgh’s special teams.

“You can play a whole game well, and have one play that’s disastrous, and it kind of gives the image of not playing well for that whole day,” special teams captain Arnaz Battle said. “That’s the nature of special teams, which is fine. I think we’ve done a pretty good overall, but we strive to be perfect, and we can be.”

Just like an offensive lineman or a stay-at-home defenseman in hockey, it seems nobody notices the special teams … unless something goes wrong.

Pittsburgh has had 37 kick plays this season (punts, field-goal and extra-point attempts). Counting a field goal just before halftime of a 17-10 loss two weeks ago in Houston, two have been blocked.

Those two mistakes do more than enough to erase the positives. The kickoff return unit is second in the AFC in average yards, the punt return team third, and the punt coverage team first.

“Making big plays on special teams, that’s expected of us,” special teams coordinator Al Everest said. “We can’t turn around and give them the opportunity to make plays on special teams.

“And that’s the nature of special teams. It always has been that way and we’ve got to accept that responsibility. Our job is to make those kind of plays and not give them up.”

Everest, 61, speaks from experience as he has coached at just about every level imaginable. The NFL, the Canadian Football League, the Arena Football League, professional spring football, multiple Italian professional teams, high school, college: You name it, Everest has coached it.

His experiences in the CFL, where smaller gameday rosters and 12 players on the field mean more players have to contribute on special teams, led him to adopt the slogan, “Get It Up.”

T-shirts were distributed to Steelers special teamers with the phrase “Whatcha Gonna Do?” on the back and “Get It Up” with “Steelers special teams” on the front.

“We’ve gotta ‘get it up’ as far as making plays and providing something for the team situationally,” said Brown, displaying his bright gold shirt proudly.

Brown, in his second year, has been “getting it up” the field on punt and kickoff returns this season, ranking second in the AFC in both punt (14.6) and kickoff (31.6) average return yardage.

Perhaps an early favorite for Pro Bowl return specialist honors, Brown has drawn enough attention that teams have kicked punts away from him. That drove the hard-to-please Tomlin to say, “I don’t know if he’s done enough to dictate that at this point. He hasn’t even gone to the house.”

If that’s how Tomlin reacts to what has been a plus, imagine what he says about the plays made against his unit.

“We have been kind of feast or famine,” Tomlin said. “We recognize, moving forward, that giving up big plays could reduce our chances of winning. … Those negative plays, we have to eliminate, and eliminate them in a hurry if we want that unit to continue to be an asset for us.”

Tomlin backs up his words. During his first draft as coach in 2007, the Steelers took punter Daniel Sepulveda in the fourth round. Sepulveda is averaging 49.9 yards punting this season, sixth in the NFL.

Pittsburgh also has regularly drafted or signed return specialists. And after the Tennessee win, when Tomlin was asked about Jonathan Dwyer, who had 107 rushing yards in his second career game, the coach instead praised his work on special teams.

Dwyer is buying in, saying success on special teams is “all about your mentality upstairs in your head and your heart.”

“We’ve been a work in progress,” rookie Cameron Heyward said. “We have these big splash plays, but that doesn’t cancel out the bad plays.

“Until we eliminate those, it’s not a good enough performance.”

The Steelers (3-2) play host to Jacksonville (1-4) on Sunday.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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