When the Pittsburgh Steelers drop back a player to return a punt tomorrow in Pittsburgh, who will be back there? That is one of the many things I find myself wondering as I prepare for the team’s next game, because the season opener really did not provide us with any substantial answers.
That is because Washington only punted one time throughout the entire game, in spite of the fact that they had several drives that did not end with points. Two of their drives ended with takeaways by the Steelers’ defense, while another two came to an end with a failed fourth-down conversion attempt.
It is notable that the one occasion in which the Steelers had the opportunity to drop a player back in preparation to return a punt saw not Antonio Brown there to receive it, but rather second-year wide receiver Eli Rogers, making his NFL debut after spending the entirety of his rookie season on injured reserve.
The question remains as to how notable that fact is, but I am reminded of something that special teams coach Danny Smith said back in the offseason when he was discussing the role of a returner. It was a comment that he made right after the team drafted Demarcus Ayers, who was his highest-rated punt returner in the draft.
“I’m not a guy that’s a part-time guy either. You put a guy back there with the capabilities and just put him in critical situations and you expect miracles”. This was his response when asked about Brown being used part-time as a returner.
He also said during that interview, way back in the end of April, that he wanted Brown back there returning his kicks, but that was long before he ever got the opportunity to have an up-close look at Rogers, who, as mentioned earlier, spent his rookie season on injured reserve. He never even made it into a preseason game.
So considering his sentiment of not wanting to have a part-time returner, and the fact that Rogers was back there to return a punt—which went for a touchback—it may be notable. But then again, one instance could prove that it was not at all.
Smith said that he wanted Brown back there, but it was clear all offseason that the team was angling to get Brown off returns, so there could be a compromise to mix and match between the two returners—who are listed as co-starters at the punt return position—based on the situation.
During the preseason, Rogers returned three punts for a total of 39 yards, averaging 13 yards per return. He also had two fair catches, and Smith even complimented him on that aspect of his game, and in his signaling a fair catch on a ball that he let bounce over his head.
I think that Smith has warmed up quite a bit to Rogers since that April interview in which he referred to him as “a suspect” and said that he “has a pair of Steelers shorts so he thinks he is a Steeler but I have yet to see him in a game”. He is the one who put him in a game earlier this week. Will he do it again tomorrow?