By Matthew Marczi
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown is certainly having a Pro Bowl season, having eclipsed not only the century mark in receptions—just the second Steeler to do that—but also breaking the franchise record in receiving yards in a season with a game in hand.
But he’s also having a Pro Bowl-worthy season as a punt returner. He was already a Pro Bowler on special teams in his second season in 2011 when he became the first player in NFL history with 1000 yards receiving and 1000 yards in returns.
Of course, because he now only returns punts, he doesn’t have enough production on special teams to merit a Pro Bowl nod in that role, though he will in all likelihood still be heading there for his offensive output.
After his 41-yard punt return today—as well as a minus one-yard return after being run into by Shamarko Thomas and fumbling—Brown now averages 13.34 yards per punt return on 29 returns.
Among players with at least 15 returns on the season, that ranks fourth in the league, trailing only Tandon Doss, Dwayne Harris, and Marcus Sherels. Doss paces that group with at 15.6 yards per return. Harris averages 14 yards per return, while Sherels averages 13.6.
In terms of pure yardage, Brown ranks third with 388 yards on punt returns. The two players ahead of him—Dexter McCluster at 654 and Golden Tate at 587—have far more punt returns than he does.
That is partly because Brown has been forced to call for a fair catch far more frequently than most in the league. In fact, while he ranks third in total yardage, he also ranks fourth in total fair catches with 22. Only Sherels, Rueben Randle, and Ted Ginn, Jr. have called for more fair catches.
Brown is also one of just 12 players this season with a punt return for a touchdown. Only McCluster has more than one for a touchdown.
Another interesting thing to note is that Brown has more returns of at least 40 yards or more this season than anybody else in the league. With his 41-yard return yesterday, he extended his league lead to five. Even with two punt return touchdowns, McCluster only has three total returns for 40 yards or more.
Brown also ranks third with seven returns of 20 yards or more. McCluster—with nearly double the number of returns—has 10, while Tate—with 20 more returns—has eight.
Prior to the rookie Thomas’s inadvertent collision with Brown in yesterday’s game, Brown also hadn’t fumbled this year—on either offense or special teams. That comes after a year of having fumbled four times, losing two of them.
With all of his offensive prowess, his production as a punt returner might sometimes get lost in the background, but he is a deadly weapon in that role. He would be even more so if the punt return unit didn’t force Brown to call for a fair catch 43 percent of the time.