Steelers News

Gunner Olszewski ‘So Impressed’ With Danny Smith’s Special Teams Units

It would be silly to think that Gunner Olszewski is not the favorite to be the Pittsburgh Steelers’ primary return man when the regular season begins in September. He was signed shortly after the team lost Ray-Ray McCloud, who had been their return man for the past two seasons, and Olszewski has done little else since he arrived in the NFL.

While his roster spot is not yet chiseled in stone, he is by far the most accomplished returner the team has right now, with an All-Pro distinction to his name, which he achieved in 2020 with the New England Patriots. But he likes what he is seeing from Danny Smith’s units since arriving in Pittsburgh as well.

I’ve been so impressed with the specialists they have here and the way they approach special teams, it’s been awesome”, he said during the summer, according to Mike Prisuta in a quote from an article posted on the team’s website earlier this week. “I’m sure it’ll click real fast”.

Of course, there is only so much work one can do on special teams in the spring without having full reps, and really, anything you do in practice is going to pale in comparison to what you see in a game in terms of how a real return play unfolds.

But there are plenty of things you can work on in terms of structuring a return and setting up the philosophy, and that does take a lot of planning and organization that isn’t necessarily the product of repetition.

And Smith’s been at it for a long time. While it’s not the only thing he’s ever done, he’s made his name in the NFL as a special teams coordinator, including a long stint in Washington before Mike Tomlin picked him up for his own staff.

As for Olszewski, he holds a career 23.1-yard kick return average, which is somewhat middle of the road, but also a 12.6-yard punt return average. He averaged 17.3 yards on punt returns during the 2020 season when he made the All-Pro team, including a 70-yard touchdown, something the Steelers are hoping to bring back to their units.

What exactly does that take? “The guys getting their blocks and keeping their leverage and taking advantage of the mistakes of the kickoff team”, the return man told Prisuta. “That’s what most kickoff returns are, any big ones, mistakes on the other side”.

The last time the Steelers had a special-teams return touchdown was in 2019 with a rookie Diontae Johnson, who housed an 85-yard return that year, and in fact made second-team All-Pro team that year as a return man.

He averaged 12.4 yards per punt return, which led the league, but as with Antonio Brown before him, he’s now too important on offense to be left as a return man—and he also got injured multiple times in 2020 when he tried. He didn’t field a single kick last year, and the Steelers will be sure he doesn’t this year, either, unless special circumstances dictate it.

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