With the Pittsburgh Steelers’ training camp for the 2015 season now in swing, it’s time to get down to the business of football. The time for “football in shorts” or “football-like” events is over as teams all around the league embark on their own personal journey for the upcoming season.
Although for just about every team the time leading up to the regular season and reflect a period of optimism, it’s also a period of great uncertainty, which means that there are a lot of questions that need to be answered before we know who or what a team truly is. It’s a process that can last well into the regular season.
One of those questions currently in the processing phase is, seemingly, whether or not the Steelers can get Antonio Brown off of punt return duties as he continues to emerge on offense, already firmly in the discussion for the best wide receiver in the league today.
It’s certainly true that in the past teams have used star players on returns. And the Steelers have been one of those teams recently with Brown in that role. But teams are seemingly more and more reluctant to expose their star players to the added chances for collision, especially as their salaries continue to rise.
Part of the issue has been that the Steelers have struggled to find a player adequate enough to replace him. He was a Pro Bowl returner, covering both kicks and punts, in 2011, totaling over 1000 yards in returns, but they took him off kick returns in 2012 as he entered the starting lineup.
Still, he has shown himself to be one of the better return men in the league. He returned his third punt for a touchdown last year, and also had a kick return for a touchdown in his first touch ever in the NFL.
Last season, seemingly in an effort to find out if they could finally wean him off punt returns as well, the Steelers refrained from exposing Brown to the role during the preseason, utilizing instead rookies Dri Archer and Martavis Bryant, neither of whom did particularly well.
Bryant had a long of 10 yards among his three punt returns. Archer returned five, with one negated by penalty. In all, the Steelers had just seven punt returns in four preseason games, totaling 20 yards for an average return of 2.9 yards.
Given those numbers, it’s no surprise that Brown was back out there for the season opener. In contrast, the Steelers averaged 26.1 yards on kick returns. But even though Brown didn’t work in the preseason games, he continued to work on his punts in practice.
It’s still very early in the process, but so far through the first two days of training camp, the All-Pro receiver has not been in the return lines at all, which could certainly be an indication that the Steelers are committed to getting him off special teams barring pressing circumstances this season.
Archer has been on the front of the line so far as the team seeks to learn whether or not he can be the dynamic returner they expected him to be when they drafted him in the third round last year. Whether or not Brown ever gets back into the return line on a serious basis remains to be seen, but it is a storyline to follow.