The Pittsburgh Steelers’ kick return game has not been good over the past two years, and that does have a lot to do with who was returning the ball, Ryan Switzer having been the primary returner during that stretch of time. JuJu Smith-Schuster had success in that role in 2017, and Dri Archer was effective in his eight games in 2015. Chris Rainey had over 1000 kick return yards averaging 26.5 yards per return in 2012.
In other words, the Steelers’ kick return game hasn’t been as consistently bad as its reputation has become. And perhaps last night Ray-Ray McCloud offered a flash of what a more dynamic, fast, and powerful return man could offer on special teams.
Granted, the kick return game in total has been minimized over the years because of rule changes. The majority of all kickoffs end in touchbacks, so it’s not uncommon for teams to have fewer than 30 total kick returns over the length of the entire season. Only two teams had more than 40 last year. The Steelers only had 29.
Nevertheless, even if Pittsburgh only returns 29 kicks all season, that is 29 opportunities to make an impact, something that Switzer pretty much never did in his 39 kick returns and 38 punt returns during his two seasons with the Steelers.
While his first couple of opportunities resulted in touchbacks, McCloud did get a chance to record a return on the opening kickoff of the second half, and he immediately looked explosive. It only resulted in a 33-yard gain, putting the Steelers on the 34, but he was close to breaking out into open space, if he could have kept his feet through an arm tackle attempt.
Give him two chances per game, and we may see him eventually break one over the course of the season. The Steelers have not had a kickoff return since the season finale of the 2017, when Smith-Schuster capped off a great season finale when he returned one kickoff 96 yards. Because he became too important on offense, they removed him from special teams the following year.
Switzer’s longest kick return of his Steelers career was just 35 yards, and he only had a handful of returns that even went for 20 yards. The kick return unit with him as the return man was simply not good. McCloud’s first return was already better than almost any kick return the Steelers had in the past two years, except for one 34-yard return by Kerrith Whyte, who only averaged 18.9 yards per return on 14 returns, and Switzer’s longest.
The Steelers listed McCloud and rookie running back Anthony McFarland as co-starting kick returners. Everybody seemed to assume that McFarland would have an immediate impact, including starting as the kick returner, but he was inactive for the Giants game. Upon initial impression, he may have a hard time finding a helmet as a returner.