It took more than seven years, 87 months, 380 weeks. But the Pittsburgh Steelers’ streak is finally broken. JuJu Smith-Schuster’s 96 yard kickoff return touchdown was the first such play since Antonio Brown’s inaugural game all the way back in 2010, taking a reverse from Mewelde Moore and racing to the house.
Yesterday, the Steelers needed no such trickery. Just good blocking and execution. Let’s take a look.
Following the game, Smith-Schuster was asked to break the play down. He said it was a return to the right, that much is obvious. What isn’t obvious is that Fitzgerald Toussaint, the other return man, told Smith-Schuster he needed to return the kick no matter what. And so he did.
From there, it’s mostly about great blocking. It’s a terrific job all around, for plays like these, it almost always is, but let’s focus in on three guys. Roosevelt Nix, Robert Golden, and Toussaint.
Nix. What a fun guy to watch on special teams. He throws the most physical block, peeling off on the man L.J. Fort – who did a really good job – sealed to the inside to allow JuJu to come off his outside hip. The defender goes sprawling to the ground. You’ll see it well in the GIF before.
Golden. You won’t see all of it in the GIF because I cut part of it off to help the load times. But the Steelers almost always run a 5-1-3-2 formation with Golden being the one player behind the front line five. He swings wide to take L2 (the second furthest player to the left of the kick coverage) and seal him to the outside, letting JuJu run off his inside hip.
Toussaint. He’s the lead blocker. Think of this like a run play. The old Vince Lombardi quote. Seal here, seal there, alley. Fort, Nix, and Golden seal the lane, creating the alley. And Toussaint is the fullback, the lead blocker, first man through the hole. He has a strong block on the last Browns defender, who isn’t able to shed it until it’s too late, causing him to miss the tackle.
From there, it’s all JuJu. He breaks tackles and shows better straight-line speed than what I remember seeing out of college. Touchdown.
Take a look at the whole return.
To me, there’s two components to a successful kick return unit. Toughness and continuity. You have to have a tough guy returning kicks. It’s another reason why so many slow-footed running backs have been the guy. The Gary Russell’s, Najeh Davenport’s, LeGarrette Blount’s of the world. They’re used to running into the teeth of the defense. That’s what returning a kick is like. Ten guys running full speed, 40 yards, all trying to kill you. Smith-Schuster has that toughness to run up the gut and break some tackles.
The second part is continuity. Good kick return teams have timing. The returners know how long it takes for blocks to get set and when to hit it. With how new the guys who have been asked to do it this year, JuJu, Terrell Watson, Martavis Bryant, it’s no surprise to see the Steelers rank dead last heading into Week 17. But with some more time and reps, the Steelers finally might have more success the rest of the way. Maybe not in the form of another kick return touchdown. But not an inept group, either.
No matter what, that was a great play. From everyone. And sends a struggling kick return game out on a high note.