I know what I’m about to ask if practically Mission Impossible. But hear me out, have a little faith, and maybe a beer or two (or seven). The Pittsburgh Steelers kick return game can get better. It will get better.
These past two years have been fair to criticize. And as the Danny Smith Defender In Chief, it’s difficult for me to come up with a counter argument. I truly don’t think it’s all been his fault, I have real problems with the hand Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert have dealt him, but at the end of the day, the results just aren’t there. And it’s fair to blame Danny Boy.
For the last two seasons, this unit has been bad. No wait. Worse. Terrible. Horrendous. Bottom of the league. In 2017, they finished 29th in football averaging just 19.1 yards per return – even including a 97 yard runback by JuJu Smith-Schuster in the regular season finale – and somehow barely progressed in 2018, “improving” to 19.3 but tumbling in the ranks, down to 31st.
So far, I know I’m not eliciting much confidence. But those are the facts. Here’s the good news. 2019 should bring some much needed continuity and in turn, improve the whole group.
The lack of a consistent, incumbent return man is one reason why this unit has been so poor. Think of kick returns like synchronized swimming. If the group isn’t in tandem, it’ll become a hot mess, no matter how talented the individual swimmers are. It takes time to build that chemistry. For the blocker to be comfortable with what the returner is doing and vice versa.
And the Steelers have had a lot of moving pieces, especially with their actual return man. This stat might blow your mind. Here’s their yearly leader in kick returns.
2018 – Ryan Switzer
2017 – JuJu Smith-Schuster/Martavis Bryant
2016 – Fitzgerald Toussaint
2015 – Dri Archer
2014 – Markus Wheaton
2013 – Felix Jones
2012 – Chris Rainey
2011 – Antonio Brown
2010 – Emmanuel Sanders
2009 – Stefan Logan
2008 – Gary Russell (fire me into the sun)
2007 – Allen Rossum
2006 – Najeh Davenport
2005 – Quincy Morgan
2004 – Ricardo Colclough
2003 – Ike Taylor
2002 – Antwaan Randle El/Lee Mays
2001 – Troy Edwards
2000 – Hank Poteat
1999 – Richard Huntley
1998 – David Dunn
1997 – Will Blackwell
1996 – Jahine Arnold
1995 – Ernie Mills
1994 – Charles Johnson
You have to go all the way back to 1992 and 1993 seasons to find the last time the Steelers had the same kick return leader in back-to-back years. And that took a future Hall of Famer in Rod Woodson handling those duties. I’m not going to go through all the other 31 teams to see where the Steelers stack up but I’ll bet a couple McChickens that’s the longest drought in football.
And you wonder why this team can’t find any consistency.
That’s shaping up to change come 2019. I wouldn’t frame Ryan Switzer’s spot as guaranteed, especially with Eli Rogers hitting the ground running, but the odds are strong. We know he’s a capable return man. As a rookie in Dallas, he averaged a more-than-respectable 25 yards per kick return before falling to barely above 20 as a Steeler. Bouncing around systems, arriving in Pittsburgh during camp, and playing through an ankle that eventually needed surgery were all obstacles in why the season was so poor.
So get Switzer back for Year Two, create some cohesion, some level of expectation as to who will be the main guy handling returns, and I bet you’ll have more success. Yes, guys still gotta make their blocks, Switzer is going to have to make someone miss, and I’m not pretending this unit can turn around to tops in the league. But there will be improvement.
Unless Pittsburgh screws it up. Again. Then they get what they deserve.