One of the most consistently dire areas for the Pittsburgh Steelers this season has been on special teams returns, and, more specifically, kickoff returns. Dri Archer had his chances, and then LeGarrette Blount was given his opportunity.
Finally, the straw that broke the camel’s back finally dropped yesterday, and the Steelers chose to put Markus Wheaton back there to field the kicks from the New York Jets, following another disappointing 21-yard return from Blount.
Wheaton returned the Steelers’ other three kickoffs that did not produce a touchback, and he averaged 27 yards in his efforts, including a game-high, and team-high for the season, 34 yards. He took that one to the 30-yard line, while the other two reached at least the 20.
That we are relegated to celebrating this feat is an indication of how poorly the Steelers have been in this area throughout the year.
After replacing Archer, Blount returned five kicks in total, including the first yesterday against the Jets. He averaged just 20.6 yards on those five returns with a long of 29, two of them failing to gain at least 20 yards.
This is coming after a season with the New England Patriots in which he returned 16 kickoffs for 494 yards, averaging 29.1 yards per return, with 14 going for at least 20 yards and two going for at least 40 yards.
Past production certainly suggested that it was worth a try, even if Blount wasn’t able to produce in this role for the Steelers. But it was better than Archer, efforts, at least.
On the year, Archer returned nine kickoffs, accumulating only 161 yards, which translates to just 17.9 yards per return. Five of his nine returns gained less than 20 yards, and even more failed to reach the 20-yard line.
Perhaps Mike Tomlin is simply getting tired of facing this problem week in and week out, and, as he’s previously stated, his first reaction in this situation is to look at the returner, which explains putting Wheaton back there.
Wheaton would seem to be a good compromise between Archer and Blount. While he doesn’t quite have Archer’s speed or Blount’s strength, he is a happy medium between the two—plenty fast to beat out a defender or two, but also strong enough to not go down on first contact by habit.
Of course, that’s only one part of the solution, and a returner who’s fast enough and strong enough to avoid some of the issues that the previous two candidates faced only masks other problems with the unit.
The fact of the matter is that the Steelers simply haven’t been very good this year when it comes to setting up returns. This was especially difficult for Archer, who didn’t even get the chance to utilize his speed before he was already been gunned down at the 15.
If the Steelers really want to solve their return issues, they’re going to have to look a bit deeper than simply who has the ball in his hands. Aside from a gadget play here and there, and inconsistently solid coverage units, Danny Smith’s tenure in Pittsburgh certainly hasn’t been very remarkable.