By BOB LABRIOLA
Taking at face value what coaches say about teams showing the most improvement from the first game to the second, that should be a good thing for the Steelers.
It should be a good thing, not because there were glaring inadequacies in their performance last Sunday against the Houston Texans, but because they are taking a significant step up in class as far as competition from the opponent's special teams.
Last week, it was Andre Davis, and while he certainly has some credentials as an NFL kickoff return man, he currently is plying his trade in Houston because the guy who took his job in Cleveland – Joshua Cribbs – is better.
"There is only one Joshua Cribbs, and we are going to see him on Sunday," said Coach Mike Tomlin.
Cribbs has been nursing a high ankle sprain, and he didn't play in the Browns opener against Dallas, but barring a mid-week amputation the Steelers fully expect to see him on Sunday night. They hope they won't be seeing him as they have recently – from behind – because Cribbs has returned a kickoff for a touchdown against the Steelers in each of the last two seasons.
In 2006, Cribbs returned a kickoff at Cleveland Browns Stadium 92 yards for a touchdown, and then last season – Tomlin's first as the team's coach – he returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown at Heinz Field.
"He has great vision; he has very nice quickness; he can stick his foot in the ground and change direction. More than anything, he is fearless," said Tomlin about Cribbs. "He is fearless as a kick returner; he is fearless as a punt returner. This guy is used to having the ball in his hands, and he is a competitor. He is used to the outcome of games being decided with how he performs. We are talking about a quarterback who dominated the MAC conference for the four years he played in that league, running and throwing. He loves having that on his shoulders, and it shows in how he plays."
The Steelers made some changes in their approach to special teams for this season, with Tomlin having described it as "creating urgency through scarcity." Practice time was cut, and special teams coach Bob Ligashesky has dialed it back a bit in how he instructs on the field, and in the opener against the Texans things worked well.
What seemed to be working was a mixture of the type of kickoffs Davis was forced to handle.
Jeff Reed's first kickoff was high and deep, 7 yards into the end zone; his second kickoff was a low line drive, almost looking like a squib kick, that bounced through the end zone. The fourth one was a pop-up that Davis had to run upfield to catch before it hit the ground.
The Texans averaged only 18.7 yards per kickoff return last Sunday, and a lot of that had to do with the way Reed was mixing up his kicks.
"It is kind of like pass rush and pass coverage; they go hand-in-hand," said Tomlin about how the kick and the coverage work better when in harmony. "Jeff has done a nice job for us, particularly last week, spraying the ball around a little bit.
"(Cribbs) is arguably the best in the world, and I think there is only one other guy who has an argument when you talk about what he is capable of doing as a punt and kickoff returner."
Among the important parts of the coverage team for the Steelers are William Gay, Anthony Madison, Bryant McFadden, Lawrence Timmons and rookie Donovan Woods, who was the only one on the team to be involved in more than one tackle against the Texans.
"No question what Cribbs did to us in the past was very critical in terms of how the games played out," said Tomlin, "but we have a big windshield and a small rearview. Some of the guys who are major contributors were not here a year ago, or had different roles. We are going to leave those bags behind and go compete against somebody who is one of the best in the world."