The Pittsburgh Steelers have not exactly been the most impressive team in the league this year—or in the past several years—when it comes to getting off quality kick returns. Actually, it seems that league return averages as a whole are down this year because there are fewer and fewer returns that are taken out of the end zone.
If you field the ball at the five-yard line and return it to the 25, it’s only a 20-yard return. If you field it five yards deep into the end zone, but return it to the 25, it’s a 30-yard return. So even though the end result is the same, the latter reflects a return that went significantly further than the other.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, they haven’t really had to worry about the 25-yard line on returns much this year, and on Sunday, they returned three kicks—one from out of the end zone, one from the goal line, and one short of the goal line—none of which reached the 20, let alone the 25, so we’ll be taking a look at that below.
Now, I’m the first to concede that I’m far from an expert when it comes to dissecting this part of the game, so I acknowledge that I’m a bit out of my element here, but I’m going to take a stab at it since it has become such a topic of conversation recently.
We’ll be looking at the end-zone views here to get a look at the entire play. The Dolphins slice the kickoff far into Fitzgerald Toussaint’s side of the field, where he fields it at the goal line. Already at that point we see a two-man wedge forming and three defenders streaking down the right side, with two to block them, plus Sammie Coates playing the role of up back.
Those three defenders are handled enough to get Toussaint to the interior of the field, but David Johnson’s work on the wedge does not stymie the defender, while the furthest Dolphins is also able to get into the play due to it being forced inside. Those two defenders share credit on the tackle at the 15-yard line.
The Steelers received another kickoff late in the first quarter, another one deliberately kicked in Toussaint’s direction. The Steelers look to take it back to the left, but in this instance, the running back simply doesn’t have the speed to outrun the backside pursuit, which consisted of three unblocked Dolphins. The result is a 12-yard return to the 17.
The final kickoff that was returned came late in the first half, this time with Coates getting the ball, due to the ball’s depth, even though it was angled to Toussaint’s field of coverage. Though it was received four yards deep, Coates returned it.
It was very nearly an immediate disaster when Al-Hajj Shabazz was late turning around to pick up the defender nearest to the left sideline. Coates had to spin out of his tackle attempt at the 14-yard line. By then, several other defenders converged to bring him down at the 17. Had that first defender been picked up, it looks like there could have been something to develop straight up the middle of the field.