The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a long-suffering franchise when it comes to getting much of anything exciting out of their return game, or, to be more accurate, their kick return game, which has not offered much since the 2011 season, which featured Antonio Brown in that role.
Brown was removed from the kick return duties the following year after he entered the starting lineup at wide receiver, but he retained his right to serve as the team’s primary punt returner, and for the next several years he still managed to provide a spark or two per season. He has the second-most return touchdowns (kicks and punts) in team history with five, behind Antwaan Randle El’s six.
But Brown’s effectiveness as a returner has been dwindling the past few years, largely as he has gotten more conservative, which is understandable given how substantial is his role on the offensive side of the ball. And the Steelers have tried for years to remove him from the job anyway.
Might they finally have found somebody who can not only do the job, but do it halfway decently? Over the course of the past couple of games, the Steelers have actually seen success from their return game thanks to rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster returning kicks and third-year Eli Rogers returning punts.
For the season, Rogers actually only averaged a pitiful 7.7 yards per return on 19 returns, but it is no secret that he as not doing particularly well early on. Over the course of the final two games, however, he returned seven punts, with five of them going for at least 14 yards. He gained 93 yards on the seven returns, averaging 13.3 yards per attempt.
As for Smith-Schuster, his 96-yard touchdown return obviously skews his numbers heavily, but he did finish the regular season averaging 26.7 yards per kick return. He only returned nine kicks all year, though that is not particularly surprising given the percentage of kickoffs that now end in touchbacks.
Only four of his nine returns went for at least 25 yards, while three went for 15 yards or fewer. But his best returns came late in the season.
Forward progress is notable, and the bulk of the Steelers’ returns, on both kicks and punts, over the last couple of games have been successful endeavors. It is almost odd even to write that, given how infrequently especially the kick return game has yielded much of anything in the way of positivity.
Hopefully the units can continue to serve the team well into the postseason. Their efforts have been a true combination of sheer blocking and force of will from the returner, one more important than the other depending on which return.
If the Steelers can get an added edge that they have had so infrequently by getting productivity out of their return game, and there is all the more hope that they can perform well in the postseason. Santonio Holmes’ role as a returner played a key role in their last Super Bowl season.