Nobody thought in July that wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud was going to even be in contention for a spot on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 53-man roster. This is far from shocking, of course. He was still signed with the Buffalo Bills at that point, who let him go when the rosters started trimming to 80 as training camps opened.
The Steelers would only pick him up in the middle of August, the sort of signing that usually ends up just being a footnote. Given the fact that training camp was closed to the public this year and that there was no preseason, those on the outside couldn’t get any glimpse of McCloud in a Steelers uniform, outside of some media notes from the practice sessions, so it was certainly a surprise when his name was not included in the cutdown list, especially considering that they only kept five wide receivers.
Given what he has contributed to the return game alone, of course, he has already amply justified his place on the team. Through nine games, he currently has 575 total return yards, ranking fourth in the NFL in that category, and part of that is because he has had fewer opportunities to return than some of those ahead of him.
His 15 kick returns on the season ranks tied for the 11th-most in the NFL, but his 24.2 yards per kick return ranks as the sixth-best average to date (there is a big dropoff after the top four). His 14 punt returns rank tied for the eighth-most, but thanks to two near-touchdowns, his 210 return yards rank second-most, and his 15.0-yard average is tops in the league, just ahead of Jakeem Grant at 14.7.
McCloud didn’t have much success on three kick returns on Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, but he did break a kick return for 42 yards, which accounted for over two thirds of his total punt return yardage of 60 over four returns.
And head coach Mike Tomlin had praise for him after the game, saying, “he’s been really consistent in terms of being a potential game breaker for us”, adding, “we’re excited about his growth and development. We’ll just keep working and keep getting him to stadiums”.
Diontae Johnson, a second-team All-Pro punt returner last season as a rookie, started the year as the Steelers’ punt returner, but after he missed time with injury and McCloud proved himself capable of handling both return roles, the team chose to leave him in that spot, and he has flourished.
It’s not often that we can talk about the Steelers having a top-10 return game, but we can do that this year, and that has a lot to do with the third-year receiver’s emergence. He is still working his way into the offense, even logging time over James Washington. He does have one big run, and some defensive pass interference penalties drawn, but it feels like the big pass play is still lurking.