One man’s misfortune is another man’s opportunity, so to speak. When the Pittsburgh Steelers saw rookie wide receiver and kick returner JuJu Smith-Schuster go down with a hamstring injury that caused him to sit out the team’s last game, they decided to clean house for their next contest.
The Steelers released their other kick returner, Terrell Watson, since re-signing him to the practice squad after swapping him with Fitzgerald Toussaint, who returned the plurality of kicks last year. And they installed Martavis Bryant as the primary returner. Something he only did in a preseason game or two as a rookie.
Who knows really when was the last time Bryant got any serious work as a returner. Not that is particularly matters, as it doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for Mike Tomlin and this coaching staff for their kick returners to have a lot of experience. Smith-Schuster didn’t.
The Steelers won the coin toss during the game and elected to receive giving Bryant an instant opportunity to make an impact, and he did. Fielding the ball at the three-yard line, he was able to catch the left sideline for a 38-yard return, easily the best of the season for the team, setting the offense up for a touchdown drive that began on the 41.
His second, and final, return wasn’t quite as successful. Fielding at the one, he was tackled at the 21-yard line, though there wasn’t a great deal he could do, especially once he bounced the return out toward the left sideline, tackled out of bounds.
Still, on two returns, he averaged 29 yards per, and clearly demonstrated the ability to create a spark that Smith-Schuster and Watson had not yet been able to do this year. Perhaps that is why Tomlin, when asked during his weekly press conference, didn’t say he wouldn’t get more opportunities.
While he acknowledged that Bryant’s “opportunity was born out of injury to JuJu”, he advised reporters that they will “keep looking” at options in the return game. “We’ll weigh those options as to who is available to us this week”.
Tomlin on Martavis as returner: “We’ll keep looking. That opportunity was born out of injury to JuJu. We’ll weight those options as to who is available to us this week.”
— Joe Rutter (@tribjoerutter) November 28, 2017
With Smith-Schuster expected to possibly be limited early in the week as he recovers from his injury, one would think that that increases the likelihood of Bryant getting another shot in that role, since rookies most of all need practice reps in order to play, even if it is on special teams.
The ability to get Bryant on the kick return game just gives the talented wide receiver one more way to make an impact, which is especially important as he saw the rookie eat away into some of his targets as the season has progressed.