For the life of me, I am struggling to understand why the fact that Eli Rogers had a strong game as a punt returner against the Houston Texans has not been a bigger conversation since the game than it has been. Being one of the primary content creators for the site, of course, that’s largely on me, so I will attempt to rectify that here.
The Pittsburgh Steelers third-year wide receiver, back on punt duties after being removed after week three, was able to return five punts for 80 yards, averaging 16 yards per return, and even his short three-yard return that lowered his average is notable.
But it actually started off negatively, I thought, with Rogers prematurely calling for a fair catch at the Steelers’ own seven-yard line on a punt that was returnable for at least a few yards.
Perhaps it was jitters, but he got over that, as he ended up recording four returns for at least 15 yards, starting with a 16-yarder at the end of the first half. Admittedly, this is situationally important because there were only seconds left. The offense ended up taking a knee.
Early in the second half, he picked up 15 yards to put the Steelers at their own 36. He avoided the first wave of defenders, but when he saw that he was unable to get to the perimeter, he wisely cut inside to pick up what he can.
Just a short time later, he got another chance to return a punt and broke off the longest of his career to date, a 27-yarder they brought the ball all the way into Houston territory at the 42. He stood firm in front of traffic, with two defenders in his face, and broke hard to the left, winning the perimeter. His poise here is a key development from earlier in the season—and earlier in the game.
Rogers passed up another situation in which a fair catch would have been a reasonable call, this time again deep in his own territory. Perhaps it was risky, but he was able to advance the ball three yards, and it came in a game in which they were comfortably in control.
Finally, late in the game, he broke off another 20-plus yard return, this one for 21 yards off of a 60-yard punt. It helps when the punt team outkicks the coverage, but he also broke a tackle that allowed him to pick up most of the yardage that he gained.
This was by far the best, most confident, most elusive, and most explosive that Rogers has ever looked functioning in this role. Perhaps if he has another strong game against the Browns, he will retain this role into the postseason after Antonio Brown returns, though they may leave him there for Brown’s sake anyway.