Special look

Posted: 7:15 p.m.



Ben and Jake are headlining. Joey Porter is woofing and Champ Bailey is picking. Bill Cowher is scowling and Mike Shanahan is masterminding. But Sunday's AFC title game between Pittsburgh and Denver is going to come down to special teams, right? The Steelers' last three playoff victories have turned on field goals, and Bengals special teams coach Darrin Simmons is the guy to break it down because he became immersed in both teams for the playoffs.

Edge: Steelers.

"Not by much, but just because of the uncertainty of what Denver has in the return game," Simmons said Friday, still decompressing after the Bengals playoff run. "Denver is solid. I don't know that they're as explosive as Pittsburgh because of what (Antwaan) Randle El gives them in punt return. You give that guy the opportunity to handle the ball, and he'll make plays for you."

Because the Bengals prepared for the Steelers twice in the last month of the season and because Simmons also broke down the Broncos in preparation for advancing to the next round if his team beat Pittsburgh, Simmons has an excellent handle on both clubs.

And, let's face it, special teams will somehow have a big say. The Steelers reached last year's AFC title game when Jets kicker Doug Brien missed field goals from 47 and 43 yards in the final 2:02 of regulation before Jeff Reed's overtime field goal won it. On the way to beating the Bengals in this year's Wild Card game, the Steelers took advantage of a botched field-goal attempt. Then last week, another missed field goal at the end of regulation, this one from 46 yards by the Colts' Mike Vanderjagt, sent the Steelers to a championship game.

(Go back to the 2002 season, and the Steelers lost a divisional playoff game in Tennessee when Dewayne Washington was called for running into the kicker in overtime, turning a 31-yard miss into a 26-yard winner.)

The Bengals' blown field goal came at the game's critical mass moment, the first drive of the second half. The 33-yarder from Shayne Graham would have given the Bengals a 20-14 lead. Instead, when holder Kyle Larson couldn't grab Brad St. Louis's high snap, the Steelers had the ball and the momentum to finish off a 24-0 run in the 31-17 victory.

The play was a shock. The Jack Bauer-reliable St. Louis had never even flung a high one in three years of practice with Simmons, never mind in six seasons of games.

It also shows how much of a factor the surly January weather can be in the postseason. It was the end of a mild 60-degree day at Paul Brown Stadium, but Simmons said it was the windiest he had ever seen it on the field. St. Louis tried to adjust to the wind and wanted to get a little extra on it and ...

"I told them when they came off the field, 'Brad, we need a better snap. Kyle, you have to make the play,' " Simmons said. "It just shows you that the most important play of the game can come at any time. For us it was the third quarter. For the Colts, it was the end of the game. You feel bad for a guy like Vanderjagt. It wasn't an easy kick to make, but they were expecting him to do it. That's why every play has to be treated as the game winner."

Simmons sees the kickers – Denver's Jason Elam and Pittsburgh's Reed - as even. Elam may not be the long bomber of yesteryear (he is tied for the longest field goal in history at 63 yards and has one of four 50-yarders in Super Bowl history), but Simmons points to his experience of 13 playoff games.

"We think of Reed being a young guy," Simmons said. "But he's kicked in a lot of big games, too."

Indeed, at age 26 Reed has already kicked in six postseason games and is 8 for 10. Elam is also at 80 percent.

Steelers have special edge?

No one has to tell Simmons that the Steelers buttoned up their special teams play after Tab Perry orchestrated the Bengals 38-31 win in Pittsburgh Dec. 4 with a 94-yard kick return. When the Steelers had to beat the Lions on the last day of the season to make the playoffs, Randle El opened the scoring with an 81-yard punt return for a touchdown and with the Lions threatening to take a 14-14 tie into halftime with less than four minutes left, cornerback Chidi Iwuoma forced a fumble on a punt return that was recovered by defensive end Brett Keisel at the Lions 37 to set up the go-ahead touchdown with 21 seconds left.

"To me the big matchup is Randle El against Todd Sauerbrun," said Simmons of the Denver punter he coached in Carolina. "I can see that having some sort of an impact in positive fashion for Pittsburgh. The punter is going to have to get the ball up in the air. That's not his history. His history is that he's a line-drive punter. If he lines it down the field and gives Randle El a lot of room to work, you could see that being trouble for Denver. But maybe Todd has worked that out a little bit now, and kicking in the thin air should help him."

Simmons has high regard for the return abilities of Denver rookie Darrent Williams, a 5-8,190-pound cornerback who was a second-round pick out of Oklahoma State. But he doesn't have near the experience of Randle El.

"He was hurt. I didn't see him much at all in the games I looked at, but he came back last week," Simmons said of Williams. "If he's back, he's definitely the fastest guy on the field. His speed could break a play. If he's up and healthy, he could pop a big one for them."

Simmons gives the Broncos a big edge in team speed and says it will be interesting to see how the Steelers key interior people on coverage teams react to Denver's double teaming. The Broncos non-kickers and returners to watch are linebackers Patrick Chukwurah, and Keith Burns, as well as safety Sam Brandon, the Bronco Simmons sees most likely to block a kick.

The Steelers lost two key special teamers in Cincinnati two weeks ago with injuries to kick returner Quincy Morgan and linebacker James Harrison, but Simmons says Pittsburgh has plenty of depth to survive with Iwuoma, Keisel, linebacker Clint Kriewaldt, and wide receiver Sean Morey. It was Keisel who stumbled in his lane on the Perry return, but who came back to come up big in Detroit.

"Keisel is really an impressive guy because he's so big and he can run at 285 pounds like a linebacker, and he's a real physical guy," Simmons said.

Defensive back Mike Logan is the guy most likely to block a kick for Pittsburgh, Simmons says, but the Steelers usually save gadget plays for their special teams explosions. Cowher, the old Cleveland special teams coach, likes to stun teams, as evidenced by the ill-fated early onside kick in the regular-season loss to the Colts. Simmons just doesn't see that emanating from Shanahan's sideline.

That's Cowher's history," Simmons said. "They're going to use more trickery than Denver. West Coast-ish coaches, like Coach (George) Seifert, their whole history is letting the offense win the game and special teams is a push. Coach Seifert (Simmons's boss in Carolina) was that way, and I think most West Coast coaches are. Holmgren. Sherman. They're not as prone to pull the trigger and go for it as opposed to Cowher. He's a defensive-minded coach that (emphasizes) the importance of field position and getting a play like that."

If the Steelers are going to try a few tricks, Simmons says to watch for Morey, a wide receiver in the interior of things who ran a reverse of a kick return in the 2004 regular season against the Patriots.

"No surprises, it will come down to turnovers," Simmons said. "But it's also going to be a game of field position, and Randle El is a weapon. He always goes for the home run, so he can give up some big plays, too, but one play can also make it."

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