The 2016 season is unfortunately over, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are now embarking upon their latest offseason journey, heading back to the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, formerly known and still referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility of Heinz Field. While the postseason is now behind us, there is plenty left to discuss.
And there are plenty of questions left unanswered as well. The offseason is just really the beginning phase of the answer-seeking process, which is 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 offseason as they develop, and beyond, looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they try to navigate their way back to the Super Bowl, after reaching the AFC Championship game last season for the first time in more than half a decade.
Question: Should the Steelers be overly concerned about their kick return game?
Over the course of the Steelers’ history, special teams hasn’t always been a very high priority. In fact, it would probably be a simpler matter to identify the brief periods in which they had solid to above average units rather than focus in on when they have been sub-par.
One of the prime criticisms of the team in recent years has been that they don’t have much in the way of a kick return game, and our analysis over that time suggests that it’s far more than just the options they’ve used at the returner position, though that is, of course, a large factor.
But, on a drive-by-drive basis, does it really matter? Sure, a couple of big returns here and there can ultimately be important, but it’s not a significant component of the game anymore.
For as ‘bad’ as the Steelers were last year, averaging just 21.5 yards per return, they still placed 17th in the league, and the league average was only .04 yards better. Among the teams with worse return figures were the Patriots, Falcons, Packers, and Cowboys.
There were only seven kick returns for touchdowns around the league last year. Teams only averaged about two kick returns per game due to the frequency of touchbacks. And as Alex Kozora showed in a study that he did last season, there wasn’t much of a correlation for the Steelers between field position on your own side of the field and scoring points.
The Steelers have nonetheless tried to find returners over the years, and the last good one they had was Stefon Logan, excluding Antonio Brown before he became too important to return kicks. They have tried to fine them with Chris Rainey and others, to no avail.
Now they signed Knile Davis, who has some history of successful kick returns in his career. But really, ultimately, how much does it matter? Should they just take the touchback as frequently as they can?