In the moment, it looked like a questionable – at best – decision.
Afterwards, it looked like a brilliant one.
In the end, unfortunately, it didn’t much matter.
Mike Tomlin bucked conventional wisdom by electing to kick off at the beginning on Sunday’s overtime loss to the Baltimore Ravens. After the game, he explained the decision in very matter-of-fact terms.
“Man, did you see our kickoff return team this game?” Tomlin said in his post game presser. “Did you see their kickoff team? Every time they put the ball on about the two yard line and Tucker hung the ball in about 4.5 seconds, we couldn’t get back to the 15. Why would I sign up for that?”
The Steelers averaged just 14 yards per kick return with a “long” of 20. Johnny Holton set the uncomfortable tone at the beginning of the game, taking the ball out from two yards deep, going nowhere and forcing Pittsburgh to start the game from their own 11. They went three and out, giving Baltimore great field position on the ensuing drive.
Baltimore forced the Steelers to take the ball out again after kicking a field goal. Ryan Switzer managed to take it to the 26 but an Ola Adeniyi hold pushed the offense back to their own 12. Jaylen Samuels threw an interception on the first play of the drive, letting the Ravens go up 10-0 early on.
In the 4th quarter, Tucker kicked to the Steelers six. Switzer could only return the ball nine yards to the team’s 15. Terrible field position again.
“I put the defense on the field in an effort to fight for field position and put the onus on them to get the stop,” Tomlin went on to say. “So when we got the ball we got the ball on the 30 something which is dramatically different than when our kick return team took the field all afternoon.”
After the defense got a three and out to start overtime, Pittsburgh got the ball at their 32, 17 yards better than any kick return Sunday. They were in position to go on a game-winning drive until JuJu Smith-Schuster’s fumble.
Listening to Tomlin’s comments, he was as upset about their performance as anyone else’s. The Steelers have tried to rotate kick returners this season to no avail and there’s reason to believe the team will – or at least should – make a change to this unit. Whether that’s bringing in a new return man, mixing up the personnel blocking, or if the group doesn’t improve after the season, potentially making a change at coordinator.