Dick LeBeau reads his players The Night Before Christmas every Christmas Eve. However, the Steelers already have their Santa Claus in the building.© 2010 Steelers Universe
Al Everest, white mustache and all, has brought the team the one gift it's been looking for: solid special teams.
Field position is an art form. In 2009, we were using crayons and just happy to get our drawing put up on the refrigerator. It's looking more like Van Gogh this season. I just hope we don't implement a radical "cut off your ear" strategy anytime soon. After that sub-par year last season (and perhaps even that's being generous), Bob Ligashesky was fired. Everest, not retained by the 49ers, was brought in. The differences are already clearly evident.
In 2009, the team allowed 24.3 yards per kick return, sixth worst in the league. They also allowed four kicks to be returned for touchdowns. Fast forward to this year, and Pittsburgh is allowing just 20 yards per return, fifth best in the league, without a return having been taken to the house. The Steelers' return average is actually slightly better this season despite cutting return specialist Stefan Logan before the regular season started (25 to 24). Jeff Reed's struggles were well documented, but Shaun Suisham has yet to miss a kick. Punter Daniel Sepulveda was having a career year, averaging over 45 yards per punt, before tearing his right ACL for the third time in his career.
Everest hasn't exactly had a complete group of veterans either. Sure, Arnaz Battle, Keyaron Fox, and Anthony Madison are older guys who had already carved out a niche but Everest's coaching has helped the younger guys grow up. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown have gotten action on the perimeter of kickoff coverage, playing as the "pinch" man. Sanders forced a fumble on the opening kickoff against Oakland and had a key tackle against Baltimore in our last matchup, pinning them behind their 20 in their final drive of the game. Both rookies have also shown flashes in the return game. Rookie linebackers Jason Worilds and Stevenson Sylvester have a combined 22 tackles, primarily coming on special teams. Worilds had a solid open field tackle on Quan Cosby to stifle the chance of a long return, and Sylvester has shown to be a big hitter after lighting up Lance Moore of the Saints.
In the very first article I wrote for this site, I talked about special teams being tested and needing to improve in order to become a competitive team. It's already tough to score on the defense as it is and putting opposing offenses deeper in their own end would make that an even more daunting task. Everest and the special teams unit has done it all effectively. Kick coverage and returning, kicking, punting, heck the team even recorded a blocked punt against Oakland. Tomlin has stated that he likes the energy that Everest has brought to the team and the results indicate that.
Special teams improvement has been as important as anything. Its presence isn't always noticeable, but you know it's always there.
Just like Santa Claus.