It was noteworthy that the Pittsburgh Steelers kept Ray-Ray McCloud at punt returner entering the Tennessee Titans game in spite of the fact that Diontae Johnson, a second-team All-Pro returner as a rookie last year, worked his way back to the field. He made sure that everybody would take notice—and perhaps that he would keep that job for a while.
McCloud, who was signed in the middle of August, was a slight surprise to make the 53-man roster in a season with no preseason, but he entered the year as the team’s starting kick returner, and averaged 27.5 yards per return through five weeks. With Johnson injured in recent weeks, he had been working punt returns as well.
He had only recorded five punt returns on the season leading into the Titans game, but he totaled 62 yards, averaging 12.4 yards per punt return in doing so, which is a more than respectable number. He was able to boost that considerably after breaking off a career-long 57-yard return, which is in fact his longest return of any kind so far in 22 career games.
That was one of three punt returns in the first half for McCloud, and he picked up another 25 return yards on the other two, keeping his 12.5-yard average and bringing his average for the game up to that point to 27.7 yards.
It’s probably good, then, that his job as a kick returner was pretty tame for the game, mostly tasked with monitoring a bunch of touchbacks, so he primarily just had to focus on returning punts, though he did also see some snaps on offense, as he had been getting in recent weeks.
As for Johnson, he had a busy day on offense, including his first-career multiple-touchdown-reception game. Considering he had just one reception for minus-two yards over the three previous games—during which he saw all of 25 snaps due to injuries—that’s certainly a welcome sight. Unfortunately he wasn’t always on the same page with Ben Roethlisberger, but he had a big third-down conversion late in the fourth. Two of them, actually, at which point he was injured again.
McCloud wouldn’t return another punt in the game after that, but he did finally get a kickoff return when the Titans deliberately kicked it short. Admittedly, it was not his best return of the year, picking up just 17 yards. He actually returned it 23 yards out to the 24-yard line, but a holding penalty from five yards back made it a spot foul, and the Steelers ended up starting that drive from the nine-yard line as a result.
Still, when you almost break a punt return for a touchdown and give the team an excuse to get a quality return man like Diontae Johnson off of punt returns, it’s a pretty good day. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of him ever returning punts, but McCloud means they have another very valid and legitimate option.