The Pittsburgh Steelers kick return team is bad. Real bad. So bad that Mike Tomlin opted to kick off after winning Sunday’s overtime coin toss, placing more trust in his defense for an offensive-driven world than dare hope his KR team could get out past the 25. His concern was well-founded. On the team’s three KRs Sunday, they averaged 14 yards, never getting past the 15 yard line.
It’s clear some changes gotta be made. To know what those might be, you gotta check the tape. So let’s do that and examine what went wrong on all three failures.
Remember the kick return team is a unit. It isn’t one man. Put Devin Hester behind ten terrible blockers and he’s not going anywhere. And the first thing I noticed about this return team looking under the microscope is how young and inexperienced they are. Here is the blocking unit they fielded Sunday.
Ulysees Gilbert III — Jaylen Samuels — Tyler Matakevich — Jayrone Elliott — Ola Adeniyi — Jordan Dangerfield
Nick Vannett Kameron Kelly
James Washington Benny Snell
Nine of those players, ten if you include Holton, are new to the KR team for either the Steelers or as rookies coming into the league. UG3, Samuels (who didn’t do it last year), Elliott (who has done it before, I’m sure, but not in Pittsburgh), Adeniyi, Vannett, Kelly, Washington, and Snell.
It’s certainly where you feel the effects of not having guys like Anthony Chickillo and Roosevelt Nix though on the other hand, the return team has been an issue for years now. It isn’t a recent problem. Still, their inexperience is an obstacle. Imagine if you fielded an entire offense of nothing but rookies. There’d be a lot of problems. This unit is no different.
But let’s get to the tape. Holton returned the first kick from two yards deep to the 11 yard line. Yuck. For starters, Holton probably shouldn’t have taken it out of the end zone. I’m not 100% sure what the instructions were from Danny Smith, what liberties Holton gets to have here, but with the way this unit is struggling, taking the knee is better than risking a return.
Heck, you don’t even have to stand in the end zone anymore. New rules say that if the ball lands in the end zone (doesn’t bounce into it, that’s important to note), it’s automatically a touchback. So you might as well stand at your own three yard line and if it goes over your head, there’s no recovery to worry about. And if they kick it short, you don’t have to judge the ball and come out to it.
But Holton does take it out. So what went wrong? There’s one player who really screwed it up. That’d be Gilbert III. Here’s a good rule of thumb. Blockers need to stay square to their return man, not to their blocker.
This is a middle return. And Gilbert isn’t square and play to his leverage, which would be to take away an inside lane and keep his man outside. He’s too late getting to his spot and sealing his man, #58 (who is former Steeler LJ Fort, by the way), to keep him outside. So his man is able to win inside, defeat the block, and take a straight line to Holton. Forces him wide, now running laterally, and the play goes nowhere.
Some other smaller issues on the play and I’m sure ones I’m missing. Kameron Kelly gets steamrolled though it doesn’t have much of an impact on the play.
In theory, if Gilbert makes his block, this could actually be a decent return. At least to the 25. Everyone else blocked it up well enough and hypothetically, if Holton is able to bounce this without #58 tracking him down, there’s a lot of grass out on the edge.
Check out the full clip below. I’ve spotlighted Gilbert on this play to make it easier for you guys to see how things unfolded.
Next return. Switzer takes it out to the 24 but it’s negated by penalty and honestly, it was Switzer who made the return look even half-decent before the penalty. Poorly blocked again, Switzer forced to bounce it, and makes a couple players miss to make the most of a bad situation.
So what went wrong? This one is ugly. There’s usually at least one double-team block on kick returns. That’s done to either eliminate their top coverage guy or part of the blocking scheme to lead the returner, just like it is on a running play.
On this play, Jaylen Samuels and Jayrone Elliott are double-teaming #58, Fort, again. But they whiff. Fort has no issue splitting it and again forcing the returner to bounce it to where he doesn’t want to go. Blows the whole thing up.
This isn’t as well blocked as the first and I don’t know how many yards Switzer would’ve gained even if the double-team was executed correctly but that was the central reason why things got ugly quick.
And the last one. The Steelers’ newest nightmare shows up again. Yup, it’s Fort. This time, he runs through Tyler Matakevich, one of Pittsburgh’s top specialists, and again, the return man (Switzer) has to try and cut things back. Because the backside isn’t blocked, that’s intentional by the way, they’re able to close and make the tackle.
Across the board, this isn’t blocked well, there’s just no push, and I’d argue the Steelers simply aren’t making contact quickly enough. Giving up too much space, letting the Ravens get an even bigger head of steam, and they all just get shoved back.
It’d be a more manageable issue if this was a new problem. Sadly, it isn’t, as I pointed out yesterday on Twitter. The kick return game has been a recurring sore spot for the last three years.
Steelers kick return rankings 2017-2019:
2017: 19.1 yards per return (29th)
2018: 19.3 yards per return (31st)
2019: 18.1 yards per return (29th)
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) October 7, 2019
But as I think all three of these clips show, they’re issues that run much deeper than just the return man. The blocking on all three returns was poor yet isolated to largely one or two players. Like an offensive line, all it takes is one guy to fail for the unit to fail. And these guys are smaller, worse blockers, play in more space, and don’t specialize it the way linemen do.
Those aren’t excuses and these guys need to improve. Again, once Chickillo and Nix come back, you’ll have more competent players. Nix will replace Washington while Chickillo should supplant Elliott (who will likely become inactive again). I would argue Samuels and UG3 need to be removed from this unit too. There are only so many options to replace them but I would definitely get Vince Williams back out there and try someone else new. Maybe Zach Gentry, a bigger frame and better blocker, when he’s active.
And as I said on yesterday’s podcast, I’m all for them taking a look at a new return man. Diontae Johnson, Cam Sutton, even someone outside the organization. It’s time for big personnel shifts.
No matter what, it’s gotta get fixed. Fast. Or it’ll continue to be a black eye on special teams.