The Pittsburgh Steelers finished 17th in the NFL in total kick return yards in 2020. That sounds bad, but they only ranked 21st in total kick returns, and finished 12th in yards per return at 23.1. That is a number that did drop from earlier in the season, admittedly, but they also finished fourth in kick return yards, performing better than the league average in every special teams return category.
A lot of that has to do with Ray-Ray McCloud, a fringe wide receiver who was originally brought in during the middle of training camp and came in as their primary kick returner, ultimately eventually also taking over the punt return duties as well. He finished near the top of the league, at least in the top 10, in nearly all return categories on his own.
But special teams coordinator Danny Smith wouldn’t chalk up the team’s improved performance in the return game simply to finding a better returner—after a couple of rather down years with Ryan Switzer as their primary return man. In other words, the other 10 people involved in those units made a difference as well.
“Yeah, we’ve been blocking. We’re blocking stuff much better. We’ve been more productive in that area, we really have”, he told reporters late last week. “Penalties are down. Thank God. Production is up. That is a positive thing”.
Special teams penalties had been a killer in recent years, though even this season, they actually had a punt return touchdown called back due to a penalty. At least according to NFLPenalties.com, however, the penalties hadn’t actually gone down—they were still among the league leaders, though arguably they didn’t have as significant an impact.
“You just have to have a total package and be able to do some different things, which we honestly are still developing”, Smith acknowledged. “I am pleased with it. I am pleased with the progress. It’s got to continue to grow. It’s a matter of the field position battle. We are fighting for every blade of grass every day, every play and that is obviously part of it. But, yeah, as a group I think it’s been much better”.
The eternal struggle on special teams is, of course, figuring out who you’re going to have available to you. The Steelers lost a bunch of core special teams players in recent years like Tyler Matakevich, Anthony Chickillo, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and Roosevelt Nix, among others, but the task is always finding new ones.
And they did, with guys like James Pierre and Justin Layne and Olasunkanmi Adeniyi stepping up this year. Marcus Allen is another. Derek Watt was supposed to be one of their new core members, but in part due to injuries, that didn’t exactly come to fruition this year…maybe next year if he doesn’t get cut.