Depending upon whether or not the Pittsburgh Steelers really make a move to call up Tevin Jones from the practice squad, they will enter tonight’s game with just four healthy wide receivers, with Ryan Switzer missing with a back injury. Outside of the starters—JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Washington, and Diontae Johnson—there is only Johnny Holton.
Adding to the concern is the fact that Switzer is also the Steelers’ primary punt and kick returner. Others have worked in those spots, in select situations, but Switzer has taken the vast majority of the reps in both roles.
With him ruled out for tonight’s game, however, the punt return duties at least will almost surely fall to Johnson, even though head coach Mike Tomlin has in the past spoken of his and the team’s desire to limit him and not put too much on his plate.
The team has put Johnson back to return punts in isolated situations when they felt they could give him a good opportunity to work without an excess of risk, including on Sunday night. He did fumble on his first trip back there, but they put him back to return another punt later in the game, so it wasn’t detrimental.
Tomlin was asked on Monday about what goes into the decision to put Johnson back to return a punt, when Switzer has been responsible for the primary portions of both roles. He cited “a bunch of variables that are different week to week, much like the offensive line discussion. I’m not going to get into minutiae, but it is a thoughtful process, surely”.
But that process will be much less thoughtful this week due to the fact that there is no other compelling alternative. They haven’t really used anybody else as a punt returner, and the other most viable options are probably all defensive players, such as Cameron Sutton.
Switzer has, frankly, done rather poorly this season in his role as returner. He is averaging a stunningly bad 3.6 yards per punt return on eight punts this season, on which he has gained an incredible 29 yards. His longest return was 13 yards.
His work on kickoffs hasn’t been much better. He has had the opportunity to return a kick on nine occasions so far this season—he had 30 returns a year ago—but has gained just 166 yards, an average of just 18.4 yards per return.
The one feather in his cap had been that he had typically good ball security and would make intelligent decisions about fielding the ball. He was also good at faking out the return team by signaling for a fair catch in a position that would draw them away from a ball that he knew might bounce backward for a touchback.
But Johnson has a chance to actually offer a spark in the return game. He has shown great change of direction and elusiveness in the open field as a receiver. If he can show up tonight, perhaps he can gradually take over the role.