The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: The Steelers have or will have a top-10 return game this season.
Explanation: For the first time in a while, it feels as though the Steelers have return men who have the capability of being dangerous in Diontae Johnson, who had a punt return touchdown last year, and Ray-Ray McCloud, who looks like a threat on every play.
It depends upon how you define it, but if you go by average yards, they are well on their way. Through the first quarter of the season, the Steelers—McCloud, that is—are averaging 28 yards per kick return. That is tied for the second-best mark in the league behind the Baltimore Ravens.
The punt return game is a bit more in the middle of the pack, averaging nine yards per return, which ranks 13th, but that will improve over time, as it is weighed down by Johnson’s muffed punt in the opener. And if Cameron Sutton wasn’t flagged for a block in the back, they would be ranked first at 18 yards per return. That one play would literally double their average return.
Johnson is already an All-Pro-level punt returner—by virtue of the fact that he was a second-team All-Pro as a rookie last year. And he has looked good so far on returns this year outside of the muff. As long as they can stay healthy, they are dangerous.
Three games is not a significant enough sample size to judge from, and there’s a reason that McCloud has bounced around. His career average in kick returns is much worse than 28, to be frank, and he will inevitably regress to a mean over the course of the season.
As for Johnson, there’s a possibility he is removed from punt return duties to focus on offense, especially after McCloud handled the duties while he was concussed. And McCloud has fumbling problems, too, even if they haven’t cropped up yet. The return game first and foremost is about ball security, not return yardage, and the Steelers lack in this area.