It may have been a bit circumstantial, but I do think that it was worth noting that the Pittsburgh Steelers again used cornerback Justin Gilbert as their kick returner for Sunday’s game. Of course, their primary kick returner, wide receiver Sammie Coates, is dealing with an injury including a fracture in his finger and a laceration that produced swelling, so obviously they were trying to limit his touches.
But Gilbert was given his opportunity, and he may be lining up there at least for one more week depending on how much Coates is bothered by his hand injury. It may be enough for the coaching staff to take Coates off of kick returns—something that he never did in college or the pros—and just let Gilbert keep taking on that role instead.
As I have written about in the past, though Mike Tomlin has shied away from using defensive players as returners, Gilbert has one of the better histories as a returner on the roster, both dating back to college, during which he returned six kickoffs for touchdowns, and at the professional level, as he was pretty successful in that role for the Browns just last season.
During Sunday’s game, he only returned two kicks, but the first return did provide a brief glimpse of what he is capable of. Just before the end of the first half, the Dolphins kicked off to Gilbert from the 20-yard line following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
The kick sent the returner scrambling back to the goal line to receive it, but he fielded it and turned upfield. He saw a small window that he could punch through if he played the coverage correctly, and he did. He gave a false step to his left to keep the left-side contain man honest, which was just enough to get through a hole between him and another defender coming in from the right side, bursting through at the 20-yard line before bring brought down at the 34.
Gilbert’s second return attempt was significantly less successful, returning the kick just 14 yards to the Steelers’ 13-yard line, but in this instance, it was clear that there was little that the returner would be able to do, and since he had to field the ball at the goal line, he didn’t have much of an option but to take the ball out. The coverage let a man come in free, and Gilbert had nowhere to go.
I do think, however, that Gilbert offers the special teams perhaps the best opportunity to produce a quality return, and I think that the Steelers should consider keeping him in the returner role even when Coates is ready for it again.
When the depth chart was first made, Gilbert had only been in Pittsburgh for a short time after being traded for. He has been around for about two months now and should be up to speed with what they are doing, so I would like to see him be given the reins, even if kickoffs don’t play much of a significant role in the game anymore.