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2021 South Side Questions: Who Handles Return Duties If Ray-Ray McCloud Misses Time?

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ 2021 season is underway, and they are hoping for a better outcome in comparison to last season. After starting out 11-0, they finished the year 1-4 in the regular season, and then lost in the Wildcard Round to the Cleveland Browns, ignited by a 0-28 first quarter.

They have lost a large number of key players in the offseason, like Maurkice Pouncey, Bud Dupree, Alejandro Villanueva, David DeCastro, Mike Hilton, and Steven Nelson, but they’ve also made significant additions as the months have gone on, notably Trai Turner, Melvin Ingram, Joe Schobert, and Ahkello Witherspoon. They also added Najee Harris, Pat Freiermuth, Kendrick Green, and Dan Moore Jr., all of whom are starting.

There isn’t much left to do but to play the games at this point. Even if they play them poorly. They still have a lot to figure out, though, such as what Matt Canada’s offense is going to look like in any given week, or how the new-look secondary and offensive line is going to play.

These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked. There is rarely a concrete answer, but this is your venue for exploring the topics we present through all their uncertainty.

Question: Who will be the Steelers’ return man, assuming that wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud misses time on the Reserve/COVID-19 List?

The Steelers announced, for the third time in as many weeks, that they have placed a player from their 53-man roster on the Reserve/COVID-19 List. First it was quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who missed the Lions game. Then it was safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who missed the Chargers game. Now it’s looking like wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud, their return man, will miss the Bengals game.

It is not known definitively whether or not McCloud is vaccinated, so it cannot be known whether or not his status on the list is as a close contact, but I think we can operate on the assumption that he is most likely on the list as a vaccinated individual who tested positive. There is an outside chance he can clear protocols and play on Sunday, but it’s unlikely.

So who returns, if he doesn’t? The Steelers list Diontae Johnson as the number two punt returner, and we obviously know that he’s capable of doing it—but do they want him to? Benny Snell is listed as the number two kick returner. That would be…an uninspired choice. James Pierre is the number three for both spots, but I wouldn’t count on him lining up there.

The last time the Steelers were short a wide receiver, they elevated Steven Sims from the practice squad, who does have return ability. I’m guessing he would again be the favorite to be elevated for Sunday’s game, this time as a COVID-19 replacement rather than as a standard elevation. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to do returns.

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