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2016 South Side Questions: Will New Faces Find Many ‘Returns’?

Eli Rogers

The preseason has ended, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are taking their practices at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, formerly known and still referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility of Heinz Field. While training camp and the preseason might have seen a lot of work put into the team and the roster, there is plenty left to be done.

And there are plenty of questions left unanswered as well, since the offseason is just really the beginning phase of the answer-seeking process, which is really one that lasts all the way through the Super Bowl for teams fortunate enough to reach that far.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the preseason and beyond looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they head into a regular season in which they are, at least supposed to be, among the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Question: Will the Steelers’ new returners, Eli Rogers and Justin Gilbert, get a crack at doing so in the opener?

The Pittsburgh Steelers released their first official depth chart yesterday, and certainly nothing was a great surprise, but there were some interesting decisions to be found. For starters, the team lists second-year wide receiver Eli Rogers as the co-starter at punt returner with Antonio Brown.

The Steelers also list newcomer Justin Gilbert as the second-team kick returner after being traded for just a few days ago, behind Sammie Coates. Coates was not a kick returner during his college career, nor did he do so last year.

The second-year receiver lined up as the team’s kicker returner for the first half of each of their first three preseason games, and returned a total of two kicks, one of which he returned for 26 yards, but he failed to return the ball to the 25-yard line, where they would have gotten the ball had he taken a touchback.

On the other hand, Gilbert actually has a bit of a history of returning kicks. He returned six for touchdowns during his college career, and he did a bit of it last season for the Browns, averaging over 28 yards per return.

Rogers did a nice job of returning punts, knowing when to signal for a fair catch, and bluffing the coverage team by calling for a fair catch for a ball that he knew would go over his head.

While the Steelers obviously appear to like Rogers’ return acumen, and seemed to have it on the agenda to try to get Brown off punt returns, given that he is a first-team All-Pro offensive player who is in the process of setting records, he is not an easy player to move.

Brown wants to return kicks, but the team could be motivated to move him, and they do like Rogers. As for the kick return game, Coates has no real credentials, but while Gilbert is brand new to the team, he has had some success, even at the NFL level. I believe this situation will bear monitoring for several weeks.

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