I’m setting aside my personal crusade to get Steelers’ Special Teams Coach Danny Smith out and instead I’m focusing on what can make his return units better. Whether that includes him or not is unknown but with each passing day it appears more likely that he’ll remain in Pittsburgh.
It does not take an expert in the game of football to realize the Steelers’ kick return game was awful in 2016. With Sammie Coates and Fitzgerald Toussaint doing the bulk of the returning, the unit was abysmal. Some guys are just natural kick returners but neither of these guys fall into that category.
Justin Gilbert, who looked much more the part of a kick returner, is no longer with the Steelers. While his return is possible, the Steelers have to do better on kick returns. He had just three returns in 2016 but his average was almost three yards better than Toussaint who averaged around 21 yards per return. That was good for 26th in the NFL.
There are two overriding issues for me though. One, the Steelers do not have anywhere near a home run threat and that hurts. It allows teams to be more aggressive in kick coverage. The second is the poor decision making. Way too often the Steelers’ return men were not staying in the end zone when it was clear they should have been. That’s a coaching issue but I’ll bit my tongue…
I also believe it is high time to get Antonio Brown off punt returns as well. Mike Tomlin has been playing with fire long enough and if Brown does indeed get a big, new extension that’s even more reason to protect him. His productivity as a punt returner dipped this year and I believe that was in part due to him not wanting to get hurt.
Obviously the Steelers are unlikely to draft a guy or pursue a free agent strictly because of his return ability but it can’t be ruled out. Typically Coach Tomlin values guys who can do numerous things so therefore I think return abilities will be a bonus.
Todd Haley’s offense, like many others, is better when they have 25 yards plus behind them. Having smarter and more skilled return men will go a long way towards that. I think I speak for most Steelers’ fans when I say I don’t care who is back there as long as they make good decisions and give the offense a better start than what we’ve seen recently.
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