A finishing kick

12-1-03, 5 a.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

PITTSBURGH _ Marvin Lewis handed out plastic orange hard hats to his team last week to symbolize the blue-collar approach to their job he wanted against the Steelers.

So it was fitting that the men who labor anonymously in the obscurity of special teams played a huge role in Sunday's winning drive that started with Brandon Bennett's 27-yard kick return that put the ball on the Bengals 48 with 57 seconds left.

"It started with the kick return play," said right tackle Willie Anderson, who brought his hard hat to put in his Heinz Field locker. "That gave us such good field position, we were saying, 'Hey, we know we can go 50 yards on these guys and get it into the end zone.'"

Told his unit came into the game with the NFL's worst kickoff return average, Bennett wasn't surprised.

"I wouldn't even doubt it," Bennett said. "We feel like we're the weak link on this team. . .But we've got a lot of good players on it. We've got a new scheme, a new coach. We've got seven new guys that weren't even here last year. Everybody is in there learning and understanding what we're trying to do.

"We were confident we were going to make a play and everybody did. We needed to do that," Bennett said.

Raising the stakes earlier in the week was Steelers head coach Bill Cowher's vow to introduce special teams Sunday before the game instead of his offense or defense. And, some Bengals were still miffed about Cowher's quote following the Steelers' 17-10 win in Cincinnati back in September concerning Pittsburgh's successful fake field goal and how obvious it was to do.

But the Bengals' special teams countered. Even the newest arrival contributed. Former Titans linebacker Frank Chamberlin, signed last Tuesday and seeing his first action since the preseason, was on the punt team Sunday, but went to the kick team for the last play in place of linebacker Brian Simmons.

The Bengals saw the return as another hard-hat example of a team refusing to quit until the time clock had been punched.

"I didn't see any letdown, I didn't see anybody panicking," said running back Corey Dillon. "We just went out there, put our offense out there and came up with a score but, the big thing was the special teams, the return. That sets it up. We got a big return."

When Cowher came out and emphasized special teams early in the week, it didn't fall on deaf ears in Cincinnati.

"That's the one thing we preached about all week was playing big on special teams," said Kenny Watson, the other kick returner. "And the game ended up coming down to special teams playing a big role in the win."

At the last instant before the Steelers' Jeff Reed kicked off, Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons felt a gust of wind coming and yelled for Bennett and Watson to scoot up about 10 yards from their own 5-yard line to about the 15. Reed could only get it to the 21. Kicking off in the same direction earlier in the fourth quarter, Reed had kicked it to the 8 and Watson took it out 24 yards.

"The wind had been swirling all day long," Simmons said of gusts measuring about 14 miles per hour. "The wind was swirling so much that when we took the field, after a couple of seconds I could feel the wind start to shift, so I had to get them up from the 5.

" A short kick not only can screw up the cover team, but it can screw up your blocks," Simmons said. "A return is all timing. Our guys must have done a good job shortening up their drops and then we got the wedge moved way up there. We treated it like a short kick and we got on them before they could clear some blocks."

Cowher said he's not sure what happened to Reed because he got off a good kick earlier.

"The one he kicked before that was not too bad and it was in the same direction," Cowher said. "Yes, it was a deep kick. We did not call for a pooch kick."

Some of the faceless wonders for the Bengals on the play were linebackers Riall Johnson and Khalid Abdullah, safety Kevin Kaesviharn, wide receiver Kevin Walter, and, of course, Chamberlin. Simmons indicated that the Bengals might have gone to a different scheme, and that's one of the reasons he went with Chamberlin since Brian Simmons hasn't played much at that spot.

"It's a different return we had run," Simmons said. "Frank is an experienced four-year guy in the league who is used to helping the team where needed."

, Which is the M.O. of a unit, that prides itself on being more selfless than the troubled special teams that came before them.

"Special teams have been up and down this year," Bennett said. "But one of the things we were saying on the sidelines is that this is an opportunity for us to step up and that's what we did."

Without them taking that step, tight end Matt Schobel knows he might not have stepped into the end zone.

"The kick return set the tone for the drive," Schobel said. "Brandon Bennett did a great job. We felt we had a great chance after that. We knew all we needed to get into overtime was three, so the mood was definitely high (in the huddle)."

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