While the Pittsburgh Steelers may have a number of players on offense and defense sitting out this game for one reason or another, they have the replacement parts already on hand, parts that have already been tested in that role during this season. That is not the case for the vacancy on special teams.
Cornerback Joe Haden has already been replaced for the past game and a half-plus by Coty Sensabaugh, who has an interception and a pass defensed or two since then, though he also allowed a long touchdown. If Mike Mitchell sits, they have two different players who have filled in for him.
Offensively, Chris Hubbard has already logged more snaps as the starter at right tackle than their actual starter, Marcus Gilbert, who is beginning a four-game suspension. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster’s first absence of the season is still more than manageable with their deep group at the position.
But who is going to take over his role as the kick returner? You may scoff and suggest that it is not a big deal, but just think back to a couple of years ago when wide receiver Markus Wheaton was thrust in to the role of returner. If it is not something that you have done before and really know how to do, it can be…shall we say, problematic.
So let’s look at some of the possible replacements. Technically, starting cornerback Artie Burns is listed as the second-team kick returner, so even though I’m not sure if they would actually go that way, it has to be considered. While he has not returned any kicks since being here (Mike Tomlin even chased him out of the return line back in training camp), he did return 11 kicks for a 26.2-yard average in college. But he has just one return since 2013, so…
The obvious candidate would be Eli Rogers, who has at times over the course of the past two years been used as the team’s punt returner, but has lost the job multiple times. But he has not returned any kickoffs at either the professional or the college levels.
One name a lot of people would seem to want to see out there is rookie Cameron Sutton, fresh off of injured reserve. He returned 46 punts in college for a 14.3-yard average, which is quite healthy, but he only returned four kickoffs.
As we find ourselves quickly running out of viable options, I am tempted to put the name of Antonio Brown out there, who is literally the only player on this roster who has ever had meaningful success returning kickoffs on this entire roster. He was a Pro Bowler for it in 2011, and chances are the Packers would kick away from him anyway.
The only other even slightly likely name, in my mind, is Martavis Bryant, who did return 14 kicks in college, though for just a 20.8-yard average. But if he is looking for an opportunity to pick up an extra touch or two, that could be it.