The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.
Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.
But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Should the Steelers really be looking for Antonio Brown’s replacement on special teams?
I don’t suppose it’s very well disguised that, while he has not hesitated to utilize his assets on special teams over the years, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has not been shy about looking to replace Antonio Brown on special teams, who made the Pro Bowl as a returner in 2011.
Since becoming the first player in NFL history to record both 1000 receiving and return yards in the same season, Brown has been limited to returning punts only as his role on offense has expanded. He has, of course, since then developed into an elite player, and arguably the best wide receiver currently on any NFL roster, shattering franchise record books and making his mark on league history as well.
Not that his punt return duties distract from his ability to perform on offense, but the theory is that it simply adds a couple of reps per game that he doesn’t need to be taking that potentially produce a greater risk of injury than the average offensive play, given the velocity at which coverage players are screaming down the field.
I, for one, am not in a hurry to take Brown off of return duties because he not only excels at it, but has also generally been smart about it. He does not hesitate to signal for a fair catch if he believes the risk is too great of taking a big hit, and his short-area quickness and instincts prevent him from taking many full-brunt impacts.
I am, however, open to removing him if the right opportunity presents itself, and special teams coach Danny Smith seems to feel good about Demarcus Ayers, the Steelers’ first of two seventh-round draft picks, who had had rated as the best punt returner in the draft.
His return statistics might not be eye-popping, but his film certainly reveals an impressive repertoire of moves that will translate well in the return game at any level. If he is capable of doing the job and earning a roster spot that way, then I am for it.
It is also worth pointing out that Smith is not on the Replace Antonio Brown Bandwagon. He made clear in his press conference that he was no fan of bringing Jacoby Jones on board, and it wasn’t his decision to stick Jones on punt returns over Brown. So it’s not as though Smith is looking to accomplish something. Ayers is a player he believes in, and some of the tape is encouraging. If he is up to the task, I would have no issue with saving Brown a handful of body blows per season.