Newsome, a fourth-year pro from Wake Forest, gets his punts off in 2.0 to 2.1 seconds, which is considered quick. But the Steelers have had trouble centering the ball to him, and at times they have failed to provide him with even a modicum of protection. Punting breakdowns have cost Pittsburgh at least two games. Newsome stands only three blocked punts shy of the NFL career mark of 14, established by Herman Weaver of the Detroit Lions and the Seattle Seahawks from 1970 through '80.
A key to the Oilers' kick-blocking prowess has been first-year special-teams coach Richard Smith, who has infused his charges with pride and aggressiveness. Before the season, the gung ho Smith went to an army surplus store and bought 16 combat helmets. He gives one to a special-teams player every time the Oilers win.
Houston has also taken advantage of a rule change. No longer is the punting team awarded an automatic first down on running-into-the-kicker penalties. Now the penalty is simply five yards. Hence, if the punting team needs more than five yards for a first down, the defenders can go all-out for the block; they know that even if they run into the punter, he'll just have to kick again five yards farther up the field. "Now we always look to see if it's fourth-and-six or more," says Oiler coach Jerry Glanville. "The new rule has a lot to do with our success."