Ryan Switzer and the entire kick return unit rightfully got an earful from the fans and media after they completely botched a free kick on Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, in which for the second year in a row the Pittsburgh Steelers allowed a safety kick to be recovered by the kicking team.
But that shouldn’t make us lose sight of the fight that the second-year wide receiver had his best game of the year so far as a punt returner, returning three punts for 46 yards against the Browns for an average of 15.3 yards per return. That is his highest return average for a game this season in which he returned more than one punt.
On the season, in fact, he is now averaging 11.5 yards per punt return on 13 returns. That includes three punts returned for 20 yards or more, and he also had a 34-yard return that was negated by not one but two penalties.
Interesting enough, all three of those 20-yard returns—and the one that was brought back—have come so far in the two games this season against the Browns. He had returns of 20 and 22 yards in the season opener, and added a 23-yard return on Sunday. That was in addition to returns of nine and 14 yards, all three of which, in their context, were successful.
Compare Switzer’s numbers through seven games to that of Eli Rogers and Antonio Brown a year ago. Rogers became the team’s primary punt returner, returning, averaging 7.7 yards per return. That was after he picked up at the end of the year. Brown averaged just 5.5 yards.
In fact, Brown has not averaged 10 or more yards per punt return in a season since 2014, when he recorded 319 yards on 30 punts for 10.6-yard average, including one touchdown. He has only once averaged at least 11 yards per return over a full season, that being in 2013 when he had a 12.8-yard average.
Another thing worth noting is that of the 23 punts that Switzer was able to field this year—that is, punts that did not go out of bounds or were behind him for a potential touchback—he returned 13 of them, only signaling for a fair catch 10 times. Brown had come increasingly prone to signaling for fair catches when he didn’t have to, so this allows the Steelers to have a more aggressive return approach.
Meanwhile, however, Switzer’s offensive contributions appear to have fizzled out. On Sunday, he failed to catch a pass for the first time since the season opener, when he only played a couple of snaps. He has just three catches for 12 yards over the course of the past three games after catching 10 passes in the two games prior to that.