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Steelers' gaffe brings contingency plans for specialists to light

The mistake only hurt one team, yet coaches and players throughout the NFL could feel the pain.

Some watched as it happened live on television. Most saw it as it was replayed, over and over, during highlight shows.

They couldn't help but cringe, the way one does when witnessing someone else's embarrassment that could easily have been their own.

In this case, the embarrassment emanating from the Steelers-Giants game was twofold. James Harrison felt the brunt of it. He's the Pittsburgh linebacker who, after long-snapper Greg Warren left the game with a knee injury, sent the first long snap of his career that mattered well over the head of punter Mitch Berger. The result was a safety that proved to be the turning point in the 21-14 loss to the Giants.

The Steelers' coaches also felt embarrassed. The NFL is all about thorough preparation, about having a backup plan for your backup plan, and the Steelers discovered at the worst possible time that they didn't have a sufficient emergency response to a critical situation.

Truth is, many teams don't … or at least didn't.

"It got everybody thinking," Chicago Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub said. "If something bad happens (to another team), you always go back and make sure that you've got it covered, too."

The trouble with special teams, however, is that it is extremely difficult to have solid backup plans for specialists. Most teams carry only one kicker, one punter, and one long-snapper. If the kicker is injured during a game, he generally is replaced by the punter and vice versa. Because the punter usually doubles as the holder on field-goal and extra-point attempts, a backup quarterback typically serves as his understudy.

It gets a little trickier with long-snappers. Throwing consistently perfect spirals between the legs to a target 15 yards away is a skill that, typically, only one player on every team has mastered. Another player is designated as the backup, but because his primary duties are at another position he rarely gets to work on his long-snapping.

When kickers and punters practice, at least they're still swinging a foot into the ball. Most part-time long-snappers are full-time tight ends because they have the combination of size, athleticism and hand-eye coordination to execute the snap and then run down to cover the punt. Some are offensive linemen, although they aren't nearly as athletic. Centers also don't quite fit as naturally in the role as one might expect; flipping a shotgun snap six yards to a quarterback is far less difficult than firing accurately to a kneeling holder or waist-high to a standing punter. Other backup long-snappers are linebackers and defensive linemen.

One thing the backups all have in common is that, because regular long-snappers have limited playing time and corresponding risk to injury, they are rarely, if ever, called upon to snap in a regular-season game. Few have even done so during the preseason.

After the debacle in Pittsburgh, special teams coaches throughout the league made certain their backups did more snapping this week than is customary for the regular season. As a rule, the bulk of the snaps a reserve makes are during training camp. Some clubs have them work on it every few weeks during the season, but the majority of them do it on their own before or after practice, if they are so inclined.

"It's sad, but sometimes a negative has to correct some of those things and make them a positive," Redskins special teams coach Danny Smith said. "Even coaches who have been in this business for a long time don't have an appreciation of (the kicking game) until you get burned by it."

On Wednesday, the Redskins held their usual punt-protection drills, but with a twist. For the first time this season, tight end Chris Cooley, their backup for longtime long-snapper Ethan Albright, participated. Normally, Cooley gets in some long snaps before or after practice, although it had been a few weeks since he had done that.

One thing that can't be simulated: Bracing for a 300-pound rusher who smashes into the long-snapper the instant he releases the ball, giving him little or no time to take the hit while trying to protect the punter. The Giants made a point of unleashing an all-out rush when Harrison entered the game. It's one thing to do that in practice to the regular long-snapper, to see how well he can hold up. It's never going to happen when a Pro Bowl tight end such as Cooley is over the ball.

"You don't think (what happened in the Pittsburgh game) is really going to happen," Toub said. "If it does, you just hope that you've got the guy mentally prepared that if that situation came up, he would be able to go in there and have the poise to make one play. Special teams are all the same way in that regard. Is the backup able to come in there and make the perfect play? If a backup quarterback comes in and makes a mistake, he's got another down to be able to correct it. If a long-snapper makes a mistake, it could cost you the game."

A perfect punt snap ends up on the on the hip of the punter's kicking leg, which is his normal drop point. Ideally, he should catch it with his fingers down and thumbs up, as well as with minimal movement from side to side so that he won't compromise his protection.

Special teams coaches say that the NFL standard for maximum snap-to-kick time is 2.1 seconds. That factors in 1.08 seconds for the snap and 1.03 seconds from the instant the punter catches the ball to the instant his foot makes contact with it. Anything longer is likely to result in a blocked punt. But putting too much zip on the snap, as a backup will tend to do, can result in the ball sailing over the punter's head.

The Bears have two substitute long-snappers, tight ends Greg Olsen and Desmond Clark, behind the highly dependable Patrick Mannelly. Olsen, who backs up for punts, and Clark, who backs up for field goals and PATs, saw what happened in the Pittsburgh game. They know very well their turn could be next.

"That's a tough situation to be put in," said Olsen, who was a long-snapper at the University of Miami. "It's not something that, during the game, we're really thinking too much about. If, God forbid, something happened to Pat, I think I can go in and would be able to get us through the game. But as the game goes on, we all kind of take it for granted that Pat's going to be there snapping the whole time. (The attitude is) we have a guy, he's very good at it, we'll just let him do it."

For linebacker Nick Greisen, the Ravens' backup long-snapper behind Matt Katula, the additional challenges to making long snaps in a pinch are the equipment he wears for his regular position. "As a linebacker, you're going to have bigger shoulder pads," he said. "You're going to have gloves on. I tape my thumbs up and my wrists. If I was long-snapping (regularly), I wouldn't have any of that stuff."

Even teams that make a point of having their backup long-snappers snap on a weekly basis hardly feel as if their bases would be any more thoroughly covered than the Steelers' were.

Said Seahawks special teams coach Bruce DeHaven, "The backup long-snappers that I have (tight end Jeb Putzier and fullback Owen Schmitt), if we snap 25 balls, they might have three or four that are about like my regular snapper (Jeff Robinson) snaps. When I had Jeff in Dallas, I went back over videotape of about 75 punt snaps he had made for the Cowboys up to that point. He had one snap that was right at the punter's nose and one that was just below his knees. Everything else was basically right on the punter's belt buckle."

The league's most prominent reserve long-snapper is Vikings defensive end Jared Allen. If you believe Allen, who backs up Cullen Loeffler, he's also among the most accomplished of the regulars as well as of the backups.

"I'm probably one of the best long-snappers in the NFL," he said. "My dad taught me to long snap when I was eight years old. I did it through Pop Warner, through high school, through college. I take at least a couple of snaps a week during practice and I usually I snap four or five balls before every game."

A few years ago, when playing for Kansas City, Allen was called upon to long snap in a regular-season game against the Texans after the regular Chiefs long-snapper at the time, Kendall Gammon, suffered a broken leg. Allen, and the Chiefs, survived without any gaffes.

Still, most teams are uncomfortable about having to go with any of their backup plans for special teams.

"You really don't ever feel good about it," Smith said. "The only situation that you could ever feel good about is if you had a punter kicking off because sometimes punters have kicked off. And if they kick off, they can generally handle a PAT or a short field goal."

In a victory over the Chiefs last year, the Bears were without punter Brad Maynard, who was injured. After his replacement, Dirk Johnson, left the game with an injury, the Bears turned to kicker Robbie Gould. Gould punted twice. One was a clunker, traveling 25 yards before going out of bounds at the Chiefs' 33-yard line. The other sailed 28 yards before being fair caught at the Kansas City 19.

Maynard would become Chicago's kicker if anything happened to Gould. "But we don't kick Brad in practice because the motion of the kick is so different that you don't want to practice a lot of it," Toub said. "I don't want him to create any bad leg-swing habits."

"Most of your kickers can also punt for you in an emergency, because most of them played soccer," DeHaven said. "But it's not necessarily true that your punter can place kick. When I was in Dallas with Mat McBriar, I'm not sure he could kick a ball through the goal posts at 15 yards. Ryan Plackemeier, who punted for us in Seattle, kicked field goals at Wake Forest.

"Sometimes you can have those guys do both and sometimes you can't. Sometimes you're lucky enough to have a pretty good backup long-snapper and there are other times where you just hold your breath if you ever get to that point."

Make that most of the time.

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