Behind the Steel Curtain AFC Championship Game Content
In the Pittsburgh Steelers 23-14 win over the Baltimore Ravens this past Sunday in the AFC Championship Game, the punting and coverage units of Pittsburgh's special teams were less sound than they have been for most of the 2008 season. Jeff Reed certainly deserves credit for his 3/3 FG performance and the kickoff return coverage was solid. Real solid actually, giving up just a fraction more than 14 yards per return. The punting and the punt coverage however were not.
Both of Baltimore's TDs were the result of great field position following a Steelers punt. I want to take a look at what went wrong on the long Jim Leonhard punt return that set up Baltimore's first score. First though, I'll remind all that the Ravens' lone 2nd half TD came after Mitch Berger nearly whiffed a punt, advancing the ball a mere 21 yards. The Ravens subsequently took over at their own 42 yard line and were in far greater shape than they should have been had Berger even had a mediocre kick. In his defense I suppose, Berger did have 3 punts with nets of 40 or more yards, and he of course made an impressive tackle for the 2nd time in as many games playing the Ravens. And he of course bolstered his post-NFL employment prospects with a breath taking acting job, but alas, it led to no points and is of little utility to the team moving forward :)
Let's take a look at the pictures from the punt return that set up the first score though:
I'm not 100% sure, but I believe Keyaron Fox and Ryan Clark are the two guys who in the next frame find themselves doing the same job.
As you can see, there are two Steelers players in the exact same lane as each other. The player not numbered on the outside of them has outside contain and is doing a good job sticking to his assignment. But players 1 and 2 are doing the same job and have left open the lane delineated by the white box below. The Baltimore Ravens player just below the Steelers players is not even blocking them into each other as you can see. It looks just like a missed assignment on somebody's part.
We'll get into what the Steelers need to do to beat Arizona in Super Bowl 43 as the game continues to inch closer, but Pittsburgh's chances of winning will be extremely high if they constantly force Kurt Warner & Co. to embark on long drives rather than having short fields. Our defense may yield some big plays and chunks of yardage, and likely even a few TDs to the Cardinals, but there's little reason to believe that Arizona will be able to repeatedly march down the field on 70+ yard drives on multiple occassions. Let's make sure of that with punt and kick coverage that resembled more closely the bulk of the 2008 season and not what we got on Sunday against the Ravens.