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With long snapper Greg Warren out of the picture after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in Sunday's game against the Giants, where do the Steelers turn now? It certainly won't be in the direction of linebacker James Harrison. Harrison was pressed into emergency duty after Warren went down and the results were disastrous. Harrison's first snap in an NFL game probably also will be his last.
The Steelers obviously were completely unequipped to handle an injury to Warren, a responsibility that falls on the coaching staff. Harrison seemed like a decent enough choice at the time, if only because he was willing, had a little experience fiddling with long snaps in training camps, and clearly would be an asset covering punts. But in retrospect, he wasn't much of a backup plan. NFL rosters aren't big enough to accommodate a true reserve long snapper, and I don't know for a fact that every NFL team has an emergency backup lined up. I know every team should. I can guarantee Bill Belichick does.
But hindsight is 20/20. How do the Steelers handle their current situation? On Tuesday, they can be expected to bring in two or three long-snapping candidates -- all of which figure to have some NFL experience in the role -- to work out. Head coach Mike Tomlin, special teams coach Bob Ligashesky, the Steelers' specialists and a few front-office folks all should be involved in the sessions. You can bet they'll sign a true specialist, someone whose job it will be to handle all long snaps -- not just a position player who also happens to snap.
Berger (also the team's holder) and kicker Jeff Reed may have a fair amount of input into the decision-making process. Heinz Field is an extremely treacherous place to kick, with a soft field and hard-to-navigate winds. Their comfort level with the new long snapper could have implications for a club facing the league's most difficult schedule and a series of potentially tight matchups.
Specialists often have a lot of down time during practices, but that won't be the case for Pittsburgh's crew this week. Berger, Reed and the new guy will need all the reps they can get with one another to sharpen their timing, especially on placekicks. With three players and three separate phases -- snap, hold, kick -- involved, there's more that can go wrong on short snaps. Revolutions, location of the ball's laces and accuracy of the snap are also more important. Punters generally are more athletic than kickers, so there tends to be a bit more room for error on deep snaps than shorter ones.
Don't be surprised if that group spends a lot of time at Heinz Field this week, rather than working out at the Steelers' practice facility. When I worked at Pitt, one of my responsibilities was to take our specialists to Heinz once a week to practice and to try to get them used to kicking in difficult conditions. Considering the Steelers' new long snapper will play half his games on that field, it's likely that the team will try to get him as many reps in that environment as possible.
In the end, the identity of Pittsburgh's new long snapper probably won't make a huge difference. There are no schemes to fit into or systems to learn for a long snapper, and even the protection calls on punts generally are handled by the designated personal protector. Save for minor differences in talent and consistency, long snappers are pretty much interchangeable. Just don't tell that to Harrison.