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 pessimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Should the Steelers really be looking for Antonio Brown’s replacement on special teams?
By process of elimination, one has to assume that the motivating force toward looking to get Antonio Brown off of punt returns is most likely Mike Tomlin, at least when speaking of the coaching staff. I’m sure the ownership is not entirely thrilled about one of their franchise players in that role.
But we know it’s not Danny Smith, because he wasn’t happy about Jacoby Jones last year. And we certainly know that it’s not Brown himself. regardless of the motivation for looking for Brown’s punt return replacement, however, the latest attempt to find one is rookie seventh-round draft pick Demarcus Ayers.
On his side is the fact that, well, Smith is on his side. The veteran special teams coach made it clear that he viewed Ayers as the top punt returner in this draft class. But the Steelers already have one of the top punt returners in the league with Brown.
Last season, Brown posted a 9.6-yard return average on 22 punt returns, which ranked ninth in the league among all returners with at least 20 attempts. He had two returns of 20 yards or more and one of 40 yards or more, which was, of course, a 71-yard touchdown in his vindication game, when Jones was benched and he got back on returns.
That was, by the way, a down season by Brown, which was skewed by a couple of fumbles, one during the tumultuous Jones experiment. In 2014, he averaged 10.6 yards per 30 returns, which ranked eighth among all returners with at least 20 attempts. He again had a 71-yard touchdown, and had three returns of 20 or more yards.
In 2013, Brown averaged 12.8 yards per punt return on 32 attempts, which ranked third. He had seven returns of 20 yards or more and five of at least 40 yards, including a 67-yard touchdown. His five returns of 40 yards or more that year was the most in the league by two. You might recall that he was Pro-Bowl returner in 2011 as well.
When you consider that the Steelers’ return units have been below average in terms of blocking, one has to assume that much of Brown’s success was his own doing. As much as Smith might be a fan of Ayers, however, he also said that he is not a fan of part-time returners, that he wants his best guy out there, and that “I’d love to have Antonio Brown back there”. So there’s that.