The Pittsburgh Steelers are out of Latrobe and back at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, also referred to as the South Side Facility. We are already into the regular season, where everything is magnified and, you know, actually counts. The team is working through the highs and lows and dramas that go through a typical Steelers season.
How are the rookies performing? What about the players that the team signed in free agency? Who is missing time with injuries, and when are they going to be back? What are the coaches saying about what they are going to do this season that might be different from how it was a year ago?
These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.
Question: Who will return kicks and punts in 2019, and will they be the same player?
The last time the Steelers had some semblance of stability at a returner position is when Antonio Brown was there. He was a Pro Bowl performer in that capacity in 2011, gaining over 1000 return yards that season between kicks and punts. He became the first player in NFL history to gain 1000 yards in returns in addition to 1000 receiving yards in one season, and for that his cleats from that season were placed in Canton.
Since then, the Steelers took him off kick return duties, and they tried and tried to get him off punts for the longest time, only fully managing to do so recently. In between, they have had everybody from Jacoby Jones to Dri Archer, Martavis Bryant, even Markus Wheaton attempting returns in some capacity. Chris Rainey may have actually been one of the more successful. JuJu Smith-Schuster did alright as a kick returner in 2017, his end-of-season numbers bolstered by a touchdown in the finale, but he’s obviously not going to be back there.
Last season, the team traded for Ryan Switzer with a mind toward him handling both return jobs. He did that, but his numbers were pedestrian at best. It’s hard to establish a rhythm with your return unit when you come into the group in late August.
He is obviously going to be in the mix, but there are others as well, including Diontae Johnson, the third-round rookie wide receiver. Perhaps you could even throw in a wildcard like Diontae Spencer, the CFL player who recently got some buzz at OTAs.
Regardless of who takes over one or both return jobs this year, the entire unit has to be better. The Steelers can’t keep starting every possession from within their own 25-yard line on kickoffs. You need to give your offense the occasional short field.