Steelers Kick Return Game Still Lacking

Trading for Ryan Switzer was the right move. I’m certainly not here to debate that. He’s added value across the board. As a receiver, his role expanding as the season’s chugged along, in the punt return game, and a little bit of work out of the backfield. Heck, the dude even gives it his all as a blocker, even if he sometimes looks like the freshman trying to take on the senior.

So bottom line. A good move. But if there’s one area lacking, it’s still the Pittsburgh Steelers kick return game.

Things were bad last year. A self-imposed mess. The coaching staff trotted out JuJu Smith-Schuster and Terrell Watson, two guys who had never done it before, and the results were predictably poor. The return game struggled. So they went ahead and added Switzer to serve that dual return role. But the results haven’t changed.

Here is their average per return and NFL rank from last year to now.

2017: 19.1 yards per return (29th in NFL)
2018: 19.0 yards per return (31st in NFL)

This year, only the Indianapolis Colts, who are primarily using a 219 pound receiver back there, have a worse average. Pittsburgh added a true return man and then got worse.

Switzer’s average was a healthy 25 yards as a rookie in Dallas. In Pittsburgh, it’s fallen to an even 20, the worst of any return man with at least 15 attempts (he has 27). Expand that stat even further and of the 176 kick returners from 2012 to present with that many attempts, Switzer’s 2018 season comes in 172nd place.

Now, this isn’t all his fault. Far from it. The kick return is a unit and one man isn’t going to solve everything. The recurring issues under Danny Smith is becoming a frustrating problem. Only once during his Steelers tenure has this group finished above average, the highmark a 14th place finish back in 2015. That’s not good enough.

At least the punt return game has been competent. Given Switzer’s skillset, more quick than fast, it’s not a shock. They rank 15th even without the benefit of a long return there.

Hopefully with more reps, the numbers will improve in the kicking game. And like the 2017 unit, end the season on a high note, just as Smith-Schuster did with a 97 yard runback against the Cleveland Browns.

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