Tomlin, Steelers Bungling Up Kick Return Situation

There are plenty of unfair, or at least debatable, criticisms of Mike Tomlin. Not being a good X’s and O’s guy (that one has always been pretty dumb), having unprepared teams, yadda yadda.

One underrated, but certainly valid, criticism though is the mess the team has made time and time again on kick returns. This year it’s as ugly as ever.

To get the obvious out of the way. Kick returns aren’t nearly as frequent, or important, as they used to be. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t important. Just think how you felt about Justin Gilbert’s knuckleheaded play in the Divisional game against the Kansas City Chiefs last year. Let’s revisit that colossal brainfart.

*vomits everywhere*

Because kick returns aren’t just about the glitz and glam. Not everyone is Tyreek Hill. But they require good decision-making and ball security. In other words, trust. And right now, it’s impossible to say that exists in the group.

Heck, Tomlin pretty much confirmed that in yesterday’s press conference. Here’s what he said.

“We’re still sorting through kick returning responsibilities, punt returning responsibilities. We know who the candidates are, but we’ll be analyzing that this week and hardening that up as we get close to game-time.”

The Steelers have gone through an entire spring, camp, and preseason and they’re no closer to knowing who their kick returner is. If anything, they’re farther away, an outcome I didn’t think was even possible. Tomlin rolled a pair of dice and got 15.

Based on the latest depth chart, here are your candidates: JuJu Smith-Schuster, Artie Burns, and Terrell Watson.

Smith-Schuster has the size and toughness the team looks for on this unit but didn’t get any work in camp or the preseason. In college, he averaged a whopping 12 yards per return, an astoundingly low number to accomplish.

Tomlin literally yelled at Burns one day in camp after returning a kick, telling him he was “stealing reps.” Now, Tomlin might be forced to hand him some. Of course, Burns being a starter and a defender are problematic based on Tomlin’s history of only wanting offensive players handling the ball. And you don’t want Burns sprinting 30 yards if he’s coming off a 10 play, 90 yard drive.

Watson winds up being the most logical fit but he would fare better in the “upback” role, the burly lead blocker for the true return man. The Steelers’ kick return formation complicates that, splitting the two men next to each other instead of being stacked. Which is how Fitzgerald Toussaint wound up seeing as much work as Sammie Coates. He’s an option. But the team will still need a second.

My guess is the pairing ends up being Watson and Smith-Schuster. Far from ideal. Two guys who haven’t done it in-game and didn’t work together in camp.

Much of the success that comes from a competent kick return unit is the timing. Just like field goals or punts, it’s an operation. It relies on a cohesive group, knowing how the blocks in front set up and when to hit the hole. No different than a running back. That process is essentially beginning from scratch and could take a couple weeks to finally get together. A couple weeks the Steelers no longer have.

If I’m an opponent, I’m not booting every kick into the end zone. I’m testing this group. It’s a weakness.

Tomlin’s relationship with kick returns has always been unusual. One of the blunders of the Jacoby Jones signing, of which there were many, was Tomlin’s assumption of how quickly Jones would get up to speed. Here’s what he told Bob Labriola shortly after the signing.

Q. How quickly can Jacoby Jones become familiar with how you want to run your kickoff returns in order to be able to contribute?

A. A guy like him who has been doing it since 2008 – 24 hours. 

Yeah….that was not true. Danny Smith contradicted that statement later in the week, again, speaking to the timing of the operation and the time it takes to gel, and Jones was an unmitigated disaster. Gone as quickly as he came.

And remember, it wasn’t Smith’s idea/call to bring Jones in. That was all on Tomlin. Smith rolled with the punches and took the blame when the unit predictably stunk.

So if it took a veteran like Jones time to work well with that group, and honestly, he never did, you can only imagine how uncomfortable it’ll be for guys like Watson or Smith-Schuster, who have never/rarely done it before. There will be growing pains and they’re bound to prove costly.

Tomlin is a great players coach. His X’s and O’s of defense is underrated, I mean after all, he was a defensive coordinator. He’s even-keeled, furthered an existing culture, and his draft classes have generally been strong. But I swear, he and Smith are in two different galaxies when it comes to special teams. And Tomlin’s decisions are at the detriment of that unit.

Dumping Knile Davis, Toussaint, and Coates were all understandable moves on the surface. But the problem is the team emptied the cabinets of the three guys who were supposed to return kicks. Now, they’re looking at some bare shelves.

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