A lot of players had a bad day for the Pittsburgh Steelers to help crystalize a disheartening overtime loss in Chicago yesterday, but what really got the ball of turds rolling was the rough outing for third-year wide receiver Eli Rogers, who was a non-factor on offense, but only all too relevant on special teams.
The Steelers opened the game offensively with a three-and-out, but their defense responded by forcing one of their own—in fact, the Bears ended up punting on fourth and 11, losing a yard. But when the punt came to Rogers, he played it too high and it bounced right off it chest, directly to Sherrick McMannis, who was the special teams player of the day, also blocking a field goal later on.
The coaching staff has seemed to have actively made the decision this year to, if at all possible, remove wide receiver Antonio Brown from punt return duty, deeming him too valuable, both schematically and financially, to continue to expose him there.
They tried to settle Rogers into the punt returner role last season early on, but that plan went sideways after he injured his foot early in the season. So far, however, he has been the only player back to return all of the Steelers’ punts received through the first three games.
That also includes the five later punts in the game after the one that he muffed, which, it should go without saying, is an indication that Danny Smith had the intention of sticking with him—or at least did not have another option prepared to go in-game.
On a later punt at the start of the third quarter, Rogers fielded a punt on a bounce rather than moving up to field it. In failing to do so, he exposed himself to a big hit that had the potential to jar the ball loose. He gained zero yards for his efforts.
Overall, he was credited with returning three punts for a total of 15 yards, but all 15 yards came on just one punt. He fair caught the other two punts in addition to the punt that he muffed at the start of the game.
Through three games’ worth of returns so far, Rogers has been credited with returns on eight punts, totaling 45 yards for a poor 5.8-yard average. Last season, he returned seven punts for 45 yards, a 6.4-yard average. He has fair caught five punts and fumbled one. He also fumbled two last year, and has yet to record a return of at least 20 yards, or more than 15 yards.
The Steelers are motivated to keep Brown off returns, but one wonders if they can continue to do so throughout the season if Rogers proves to be an insufficient option at returner. For those wondering, Brown has seven fumbles on 175 career punt returns.