The Pittsburgh Steelers well underway with the offseason workouts at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, also referred to as the South Side Facility. We are already into the heart of the offseason, where hope springs eternal following a few months of pretty significant changes, in terms of both departures and arrivals.
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: Will the Steelers’ return units reach at least middle of the pack this season?
The Steelers had some of the worst return units in all of football last year, ranking last or close to it in punt and kick return yardage and in average starting field position. In spite of that, they still had one of the highest-scoring offenses in the league, so it’s not the end-all, be-all, but it never hurts to start with better field position. And maybe to even score a touchdown or two.
While Pittsburgh rarely has return units that are above average—Antonio Brown earlier on was an above average returner, to be sure, even making the Pro Bowl for it in 2011—both punt and kick return units took a major turn for the worse in 2018. Will that change this season?
The biggest difference between then and now should simply be the reality that the return man will have more experience with the team. Ryan Switzer handled punt and kick returns throughout the season, but he was only brought in at the end of August.
Just as on offense or defense, return units have to work in tandem, with all players on the same page. The blockers have to have a feel for the returner, and vice versa, in order to maximize their chances. Devin Hester was a great returner, but he also had great blocking frequently throughout his career, if you really watch some of his touchdowns.
Reaching even an average stage for the return game would be a significant improvement from last season. In fact, slightly below average would. Will Switzer continue to do returns? Will somebody new like Diontae Johnson take over the job?
Whoever is doing it, the blocking has to get better. Alex Kozora will have more on that for you later this morning, and I know that’s a topic that some of you have been waiting on for a long time.