For the last few seasons, the Pittsburgh Steelers have had a fairly unsettled situation at the position of kick returner. The last time the team has had any meaningfully consistent success at the position was when they actually kept a designated spot on the roster for a player whose sole job it was to return kicks.
Since then, we have been subjected to the likes of a greatly slowed Felix Jones and a bumbling LeGarrette Blount, whose return averages were, quite frankly, below average. The Steelers had hoped to have found an answer with pure speed in Dri Archer, but his struggles to adjust to the professional level during his rookie season have been well documented.
Archer was given a handful of games to take hold of the return job, in between which was an ankle injury, but the only time he managed to reach the 20-yard line, it was called back because of a penalty on the return team. In all, he averaged less than 18 yards per return.
From the sounds of it, Archer will get another opportunity to take the kick return job, as will others, no doubt, including Markus Wheaton, who finished the season as the Steelers’ primary return man and showed a modest improvement, though was still little more than average in terms of his impact.
There is very likely, however, a broader reason for the Steelers’ returners’ lack of success last season, whether it was Archer, Blount, or Wheaton, and it will be the problem of whoever is returning the ball in 2015 if something doesn’t change.
Quite simply, too often the Steelers return unit performed too poorly too often in order to maintain any type of consistent success, whether it was a schematic failure or losing an individual matchup in a one-on-one situation.
While it’s a great asset to have a legitimately skilled returner—which is why the Steeler still allow All-Pro starting wide receiver Antonio Brown to field punts—it’s more than likely that the team would see a greater boost to its kick return unit with improved blocking than simply switching out the player returning the ball.
I wrote above that on only one occasion did Archer even reach the 20-yard line, and that that return was called back due to a penalty. The fact that he couldn’t get to the 20-yard line at least a couple of times without being touched is an indictment of those blocking in front of him.
I believe that overall improvement of the unit will be most critical if the Steelers do intend to use Archer as the primary return man on kickoffs when you take into consider not just his speed, but also his size.
While he may be a bit stronger than his frame suggests, he still struggles to run through contact. In order to maximize his abilities—namely, his elite speed—the Steelers must be able to get him into open territory, or else his efforts will have been wasted. It’s up to Danny Smith to get this unit turned around.