Danny Smith made some interesting comments today about the lack of returners the Pittsburgh Steelers have, pointing out they probably have the fewest return-capable guys in the league. But he’s happy about at least one of the guys he has. Sitting down with Bob Labriola for this week’s Coordinator’s Corner, Smith said he was happy with how JuJu Smith-Schuster handled the onside kick return Sunday vs the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Chiefs lined up to kickoff with 2:21 left in the game and the Steelers up by six. Pittsburgh put out their hands team and lined up to protect against an onside kick, leaving Smith-Schuster all by himself near his own end zone. The Chiefs did boot it deep and Smith-Schuster fielded it cleanly, getting out of bounds to the Steelers’ 24. In Smith’s eyes, he checked every box.
“JuJu did a great job,” Smith said. “We got the ball back to the 24 yard line. Which coming off of an onside kick which is kicked deep when you have the hands team out there, you don’t have a whole lot of blockers out there. Or guys who block for a living…you have to do the best you can and get the field position.”
Danny Smith said he was happy Smith-Schuster ducked out of bounds, noting taking a hit is the last thing you want to have happen. There’s no chance for a great return and you’re only risking a fumble by trying to be cute with it.
“You prefer a guy not to take a hit because the only thing they can do is get the ball. JuJu played it well. We were properly aligned and played well and had all the situations covered and it came out good for us.”
Smith says he isn’t opposed to a player sliding instead but countered that “these guys aren’t baseball players” and not everyone knows how to slide effectively, especially in a high-pressure moment.
It’s certainly a stark difference to a similar situation last year. In the Divisional game against the Chiefs, Justin Gilbert – though he was trying to get out of bounds – returned the ball to only the Steelers’ seven yard line for what ended up being a net loss of two. Given the fact the sideline was taken away, Gilbert would’ve been best to get upfield and go down on his own. So credit to a rookie like JuJu for responding in the right way.
Still, the Steelers’ kick return unit has been the worst in the league. They’re averaging 14.9 yards per kick, nearly three yards behind the 31st ranked team with a long of just 25 yards, tied for second-lowest. It’s a predictable outcome after the coaching staff thrust Smith-Schuster and Terrell Watson into the lineup for Week One after neither got any reps in the preseason and lack a college background in that area. Watson never did it and JuJu averaged 12 yards on a handful of tries.
It’s not that Smith-Schuster and Watson are bad options to be returners. In fact, they fit what the Steelers look for really well. Big. Tough. Physical. Experience carrying the ball. That makes it all the more baffling the team didn’t think to give them much of a look during the preseason.