It's a part of their history, along with the Immaculate Reception and the six Lombardi trophies and the 77 seasons of family ownership. Special teams play certainly has a part of Steelers history. The other part.
In the context of the evolution of professional football, it can be argued that special teams was born in 1969, that being the date when Los Angeles Rams coach George Allen hired Dick Vermeil to be the NFL's first-ever full-time coach of that phase of the game. In those 40 years since, the Steelers have been as good at special teams as they were in the first 40 years of the franchise's existence. In other words, they have been OK infrequently, bad most of the time, and awful on occasion. But never great.
For all of his abilities as a raiser of the dead, Chuck Noll was not one to place a lot of emphasis on special teams. Noll served as his own special teams coach for all but the final few seasons of his Hall of Fame career, and only briefly on the morning before a game would the players "work" on that phase under his tutelage.
Super Bowl X often is remembered fondly by Steelers fans for the John Wayne imitation Jack Lambert pulled at the expense of Cliff Harris. When Roy Gerela missed a short field goal attempt and Harris mockingly patted him on the helmet, Lambert appeared and flung the Cowboys safety to the turf. As Noll would say after the game, "Jack Lambert is the defender of all that's right," but Gerela's bad day can be traced to an injury he sustained making a tackle on the opening kickoff the Cowboys returned 50 yards off a reverse.
The Steelers special teams were not prepared for this bit of trickery on the opening kickoff, and from a special teams standpoint that day things went downhill from there. Punter Bobby Walden fumbled a snap that led to a Cowboys touchdown, there were Gerela's three missed kicks – two field goals and an extra point, and another Walden punt that almost was blocked.
Reggie Harrison did block a punt for the Steelers for a safety, but the Steelers overall performance on special teams during this Super Bowl was bad enough that with 1:22 to play, Noll had his offense run on fourth down from the Dallas 41-yard line rather than "risk" attempting to punt to pin the Cowboys offense deep in its own territory.
Noll continued to serve as his own special teams coach until the 1987 season, and it was the 1986 finale against the Kansas City Chiefs that served as the last straw.
Despite holding statistical advantages in first downs, 28-8; rushing offense, 175-38; and passing offense, 340-133; the Steelers lost the game, 24-19, to finish the season at 6-10 because the Chiefs blocked a punt and recovered it for a touchdown, blocked a field goal and returned it for a touchdown and returned a kickoff 97 yards for another touchdown. In the offseason news conference that announced Jon Kolb and Dennis Fitzgerald as the first-ever special teams coaches in franchise history, Noll said of himself, "If you hit a donkey in the head with a stick often enough, even he will get the message."
But that historic event did little to alter the course of the relationship between the Steelers and special teams.
- In 1988, a 5-11 season, the Steelers had six punts blocked, two of which came in a loss to the Houston Oilers at Three Rivers Stadium.
- In 1993, the Steelers were in control of a game in Cleveland against the Browns, a game against a division rival at a venue where Bill Cowher had yet to win, but they lost, 28-23, because Eric Metcalf returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown with 2:05 left to play. The Browns were in striking distance in the first place because Metcalf had returned an earlier punt 91 yards for a touchdown.
That loss to the Browns helped send the Steelers to Kansas City as a Wild Card in the first round of the playoffs, and the Chiefs looked like they were going down to defeat until they blocked a punt at the two-minute warning, recovered at the Steelers 9-yard line and scored the tying touchdown on a fourth-down pass with 46 seconds left. Nick Lowery's field goal in overtime eliminated the Steelers from those playoffs.
- Everybody remembers the 2001 AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field, when the New England Patriots pulled off an upset on the way to their first Super Bowl championship, in large part because they returned a punt for a touchdown and blocked a field goal that they returned for another touchdown in a game that ended, 24-17.
- And most recently, there was 2009, when the team's attempted defense of its sixth Super Bowl title was derailed by the four kickoffs opponents returned for touchdowns, two of which provided the difference in losses that kept the Steelers out of the playoffs.
Following the Fitzgerald-Kolb tandem that lasted just the one season, there have been seven coaches assigned to special teams, and their tenures were marked with varying degrees of success. There was George Stewart (1989-91), John Guy (1992-93), Bobby April (1994-95), Ron Zook (1996-98), Jay Hayes (1999-2001), Kevin Spencer (2002-06) and Bob Ligashesky (2007-09).
Al Everest is No. 8.