The Pittsburgh Steelers were reminded yesterday afternoon why wide receiver Antonio Brown is such a deadly return man, and it had nothing to do with fly kicks to the face.
On the Cleveland Browns’ first punt of the game, Brown fielded the ball at his own 25-yard line. He took a hard false step to the right and completely froze the first player down the field, slipping by him before being tackled at the 34.
Following a three-and-out deep in their own end, Cleveland was forced to punt from the 14-yard line, with Spencer Lanning standing on the goal line.
Fielding the ball within his own 30-yard line with the first gunner just outside of a five-yard perimeter, Brown planted his left foot hard before pivoting to the right, getting past the first opposition before turning upfield to get the second gunner bending himself backwards with no chance to make a play.
Weaving his way between two more Browns defenders with their arms outstretched in a fruitless attempt to lay a finger on him, Brown sidestepped a fifth defender hard after clearing the orange helmet gauntlet.
Outracing three of the last four defenders, only the helpless punter then stood between Brown and the end zone. In truth, if he’d just cut his run hard to the left, he had a good chance of scoring, with two blockers on that side of the field.
Instead, he attempted to leap over the punter, with his cleat unceremoniously connecting with Lanning’s facemask, which allowed three Browns defenders to catch up to him and bring him down inside the 30-yard line.
The ill-fated hurdle netted Brown a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty, which is certainly not an everyday call on a punt returner, and quite simply was probably the least impressive aspect of his return.
Not only did he field the ball with pressure closing in on his face, he broke about five tackles in the process of the return, beating three separate defenders individually with a juke of some kind and making them miss.
While there is some hope for Dri Archer, the reality is that the Steelers don’t have anybody else on the roster that can do what Brown does, particularly with respect to his maneuverability in close quarters.
That’s what made him a Pro Bowl return man in his second year, becoming the first player in the history of the game to record over 1000 yards in returns in the same year that he recorded over 1000 yards receiving.
It’s something we should have known all along. His first NFL touch was a kick return for a touchdown. He has two punt returns for touchdowns in his career as well, and could have had another yesterday.
Brown may be one of the most important players on offense, but he is also one of the most important players on special teams as well. After an opening day like that, it will be hard to take him off punt returns now.