The Pittsburgh Steelers seemed to be on a mission of modest importance, seeking to find a replacement for Antonio Brown on punt returns. They drafted Demarcus Ayers for that potential role, but Eli Rogers, a second-year former undrafted free agent, made the roster, and may take that job.
Whether or not he does remains to be seen. He fared pretty well returning punts, but it was a pretty small sample size, and Brown is not a player you want to yank too quickly. He has proven yearly to be one of the better and more reliable punt returners in the league, and would still be Pro Bowler if he were allowed to return kicks as well, as he did in 2011.
But who is going to return those kicks, speaking of which? The preseason didn’t offer much clarity. Sammie Coates lined deep in the first half for the first three preseason games, and ended up returning only two, one for 26 yards that failed to reach the 25-yard line, and another off a squib kick.
In the second half of the first game, Levi Norwood lined up deep, but Cobi Hamilton did so for the remainder of the preseason in the second half. He was also the kick returner for all of the final preseason game. Problem is he didn’t even make the roster.
So is the plan for Coates to serve as the Steelers’ kick returner? Is Markus Wheaton going to resume his role as he did last season, in spite of the fact that he is decidedly average at best, and would be better served focusing solely on offense, especially given that he missed so much time?
Could that be where the newest Steeler, former Browns cornerback Justin Gilbert, finally comes in? In spite of his failure to actually carve out an NFL career in the capacity that saw him drafted in the top 10 picks of the 2014 NFL Draft, he has been a fine return man.
Gilbert returned 12 kicks for Cleveland last season for a total of 339 yards, averaging a very commendable 28.3 yards per turn. That is certainly a far cry from anything a Steelers returner has managed to achieve in recent years. While his longest return was 40 yards, he had four returns of at least 35 yards.
Of course, regardless of who actually is back returning kicks, what is certain is that if there is to be any hope of improvement, it has to start with better blocking up front. The Steelers have gotten off to a slow start in that department in each of the past two seasons, though they improved over the course of the season.
It would certainly be a disappointment if this is an area in which the Steelers end up apparently glossing over in terms of importance, even if the kickoff as a play has been diminished in value over the years. And I can’t help but wonder if the trade for Gilbert had his return ability at least in part in mind, who recorded six kick return touchdowns in college.