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Film Room: Return Units Suffer Self-Inflicted Wounds

This week, what I want to take a look at on special teams is the return units, something that we have not paid a whole lot of attention to this year (especially kick returns, and for good reason—barely any are returned, and the ones that are have not been very good).

The Pittsburgh Steelers rank toward the bottom of the league when it comes to finding success on returns either following kickoffs or punts. There have been a variety of reasons for that, but much of it does fall on the returners themselves.

While Martavis Bryant, for example, has already shown that he has within him the potential to produce the big play if given the window of opportunity while returning a kick, he doesn’t have a particularly good feel for where to take a return without an opening. His first return of the game was stalemated at the 17-yard line, although in this instance he probably didn’t stand to gain much more taking another route.

Early in the second half, on a punt return, the Steelers used vice jammers of Coty Sensabaugh and Darrius Heyward-Bey on the left side. Heyward-Bey is usually on the right side, for what it’s worth, but note him at the end signaling to the official. He knows the gunner stepped out of bounds on his own and didn’t try to re-establish himself. That’s a free five yards and Heyward-Bey was going to make sure they got what’s theirs.

Later in the quarter, it looked like the Steelers might have done the impossible and popped a kick return for a score, but it was negated by a hold on J.J. Wilcox. Toward the interior of the coverage, his hold did help spring Bryant, but it was not essential to the return.

Early in the fourth quarter, the Steelers had a short 13-yard punt return by Eli Rogers negated by an unnecessary roughness penalty on Brian Allen, the left jammer on the play. He really lit up the left-side gunner as he looped around in pursuit of the returner.

Finally, Rogers had another, nine-yard, return negated by yet another penalty, the second on Wilcox. This one was clear as day, literally tossing somebody to the ground. The safety was frustrated on the sideline, as Heyward-Bey sought to cool him down.

Special teams penalties are about as frustrating as they get, especially when one of them negates a touchdown. The Steelers couldn’t get out of their own way this past week, with Wilcox especially the culprit, though Allen now has two penalties in the past two games.

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