When the Pittsburgh Steelers open the regular season, who is going to be set deep to return punts? Will it be, as it has been for most of the past seven years, Antonio Brown, the All-Pro wide receiver who was too important to keep returning both kicks and punts, yet still does the latter?
Or will it be the only player who was actually fielding punts in practice yesterday, third-year wide receiver Eli Rogers? He told Joe Rutter that that was the case—regarding him being the long player fielding punts in practice—but he also told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review writer that the “door is open for Antonio Brown to resume those familiar duties”.
Eli Rogers said he was lone player fielding punts at practice but added that door is open for Antonio Brown to resume those familiar duties
— Joe Rutter (@tribjoerutter) September 6, 2017
Brown did not attempt a single punt return during the preseason, and I do not believe that he did so during training camp, either, but that is not unique. That has been the case for at least the past two years as well, if I’m not mistaken, yet he has still been the primary punt returner in those years.
Still, this year could be different. The Steelers are clearly motivated to make the move as evidenced by their multiple efforts to draft for the position or to make signings to assume the return roles. It seemed last year they were hopeful that Rogers would be the one to take over, but the plan hit a snag.
As a matter of fact, Rogers was the Steelers’ primary punt returner over the course of the first three weeks of the season last year, a fact that many may not have realized or recalled. But the young wide receiver suffered an injury in that third game, and the team pretty much scrapped the idea of putting him back there.
The Steelers forced 14 punts through the first three games, the majority of which came with Rogers back to receive, according to Pro Football Reference. There are three instances in which no returner is listed because the punt either went out of bounds or was downed.
Of the other 11, seven were with Rogers and four with Brown. Rogers called for a fair catch three times, Brown twice. Of the four punts that Rogers returned, he gained 32 total yards with a long of 15 and an average return of eight yards. Brown returned two punts for a combined 18 yards with a long of 14 and an average of nine.
Obviously those are extremely small sample sizes from which to judge. On the season, Brown still returned only 15 total punts for 140 yards, averaging 9.3 yards per return, with two returns over 20 yards and none over 40 yards. He fair caught as many as he returned.
Rogers only got to return three punts, in the opener, during the preseason this year, and he did so for a total of 18 yards with a long of nine. Again, it’s a small sample size. But with the motivation to find a new punt returner and the fact that he is healthier and more experienced than a year ago—perhaps even with a reduced role on offense—there seems to be a good chance he will have the opportunity to seize the job.