Even though the Pittsburgh Steelers fielded a 11-5 division-winning team during the 2014 season, they headed into this offseason with plenty of areas to work on that were in need of improvement, through all three phases of the game.
One of the less heralded aspects in need of improvement that we have been harping on this offseason was the kickoff return unit, which had been by far the weakest link out of all of the different special teams units.
With Antonio Brown manning the punt returns, the Steelers were able to get a spark-setting return every now and then, including a touchdown in the division-clinching season finale. Thanks to some excellent individual special teams standouts, both coverage units also appeared to be better than average, at least in comparison to other recent Steelers teams of the past.
But the kickoff return unit had consistently lagged behind, even if it saw some improvement as the season advanced. And that is a fair point, as the early season struggles were significant enough to drag the season average down.
This is all well known to special teams coach Danny Smith, who singled out the kickoff return unit to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ed Bouchette yesterday as the area that most needed improvement. “We got decent” later in the year, he said, “which made it a just below average year”.
The Steelers finished the year with an abysmal 21.7 yards per return average, and their starting field position of 25.2 was third-worst in the league, although that latter statistic also says something about how poorly the defense turned the ball over last year.
Smith took some of the blame for the early season struggles by acknowledging what he now regards as an error to give Dri Archer the green light to return kicks from the back of the end zone. It’s no surprise that not one of Archer’s returns that didn’t get called back on a penalty reached the 20-yard line.
The veteran special teams coach told Bouchette that he will be smarter about when to give the green light depending on the game circumstances, matchup, and who is back returning kicks. And he also said that he has been working with Archer in learning how to set up his blocks, which is something that he struggled with as a rookie, enough that it warranted taking him off the return job.
Markus Wheaton replaced him, and with his addition, the kick return unit did improve, but was still below the league average. Smith is not committed to any returner, saying simply that “we’re going to play the best player”, adding that having the extra preseason game “will give us a good indication” of who that might be.
While Archer may have to earn his job, he is getting first dibs, it seems. Smith said that he is “high on Dri” and thinks he “is going to be fabulous”, but he also spoke highly of Wheaton, saying that he believes both are playing with more confidence this year.
But Archer and Wheaton are not the only two players in the mix. Eli Rogers would seem to be the most likely challenger to the role if he manages to make the team, and if he does, it will probably because he showed he can return kicks. Of those likely to make the roster, Martavis Bryant has also been used as a returner.
Whoever lands the role must be an improvement from last year. The team lost the field position battle far too often for one that has Super Bowl aspirations. The first step toward success is to set yourself up for success, and starting inside the 20 fails to accomplish that.