Steelers Can’t Afford To Experiment On Kickoffs Vs Patriots

Well, it was fun…until it wasn’t…while it lasted, but I can’t help but assume that starting in tomorrow’s practice, wide receiver Martavis Bryant is not going to be set up as the primary kick returner leading up to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ pivotal game against the New England Patriots, which may decide who hosts the AFC Championship game.

While I have talked over the course of the past two weeks in my special teams reports that Bryant clearly flashes the potential for delivering a big play, I have also warned that he doesn’t have much of a plan of attack when a lane is not presented to him.

Sunday night’s game in particular showed how difficult of a time he can have to maximize a return unless he has a hole to hit, which resulted in him leaving a lot of yardage out on the field that the offense could have used.

Bryant was able to return five kickoffs from the Ravens, but he totaled just 55 yards on them for an 11-yard average, with the longest individual return only going for 21 yards. And one of those returns really flirted with disaster.

It should be granted that the Baltimore Ravens are among the best teams in the league with respect to special teams. Head Coach John Harbaugh has a serious background in that area of the game, and he has surrounded himself with the coaches and players that allow him to excel. Justin Tucker and Sam Koch are Pro Bowl specialists.

With that said, you simply cannot do some of the things that Bryant did on kick returns. Indecisiveness is a fatal flaw for a returner, a role that requires quick thinking and acting, and we saw that on display during a number of Bryant’s returns.

The one following the Ravens’ first touchdown in the second quarter is a perfect example. Fielding the ball at the three, Bryant     immediately paused to assay the field before looking to cut sharply to the right, seeing daylight to that end. Once he found that he could not reach the edge, he essentially gave himself up, tackled at the 12-yard line.

He also returned at kick out of the end zone to the 18-yard line, but the most damning was the third-quarter boot that he failed to field with urgency, allowing it to bounce to him and trusting that it would do so on a predictable manner. This kick nearly resulted in a safety.

You can be sure that the Patriots are quite aware of how Bryant returned kicks over the course of the past three weeks and would look to take advantage of his inexperienced decision-making in that area, as they tried to do to the Dolphins last night.

JuJu Smith-Schuster has not been without fault, either, of course. He was involved in the free kick that the Chiefs recovered earlier this year, and he has not done anything particularly special on returns. But consistent starting field position between the 20 and 25 right now feels a bit like heaven.

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