Diontae Spencer is comfortable with winning in space. When you played in the CFL’s wide open fields and have 4.3 fields, you can make defenders look silly. That’s what Spencer has done through his first two games. By my count, on offense and special teams combined, he’s forced nine missed tackles.
Let’s take a look at the damage he’s done already.
His change of direction and lateral mobility is evident most times he has the ball. What I love about him as a return man is that he’s able to routinely make the first guy miss. Cut to his left, force the miss, get a couple extra yards out of this punt return.
Same thing his next punt return. Good posture, catches it cleanly, plants that left foot in the ground and gets upfield. Another solid return.
Same thing in the kick return game. The initial impression of what he did against Tampa Bay didn’t feel great, sullied by an ugly 3rd down drop, but looking back, he was productive. Those two missed tackles aren’t as obvious as the first pair but he has the speed to beat the angle of two coverage players and get past the 30 yard line, a huge win for the return game. Offense an extra seven yards ahead of where they’d be had he taken a knee.
And from last week. Three missed tackles on this punt return. Well blocked, we covered that yesterday, but he has the speed to beat the angle of the first two would-be tackles while juking out the punter (I know, hardly counts) for a 38 yard runback.
Another ankle-breaker in the punt return game. And again, making the first man miss.
And one more on offense for good measure. End around to him. Plants that foot, cuts upfield, wins in space. That’s what Spencer brings to the table.
In the return game, I can’t stress enough how important it is to make the first guy miss. You do that and your return is even half-decently blocked and you can make big plays. Make the initial defender miss and factor in the kicker/punter and now it’s 11 on 9. Advantage offense.
The Steelers’ kick return game has been horrible the last two years and the punt return game has only been average. Already, Spencer feels like a better return man than Ryan Switzer though he’s less proven as a receiver and might not have the level of trust in the coaching staff. Then there’s the lack of consistency that’s plagued the Steelers forever (the last time they had the same kick returner in consecutive years since Rod Woodson in 1992 and 1993).
Spencer still has work to do. His path to the roster comes as a return man only, essentially, and to do that, you have to prove consistency and big-play ability throughout. But he, like Johnny Holton, haven’t taken themselves out of the running for earning a roster spot, making these next two games critical for both of them.