Judging by the comments made by Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin in a recent interview, the punt returner job has already been given to rookie running back Chris Rainey.
Tomlin was asked in the interview if he was comfortable with the decision making of Rainey as a punter returner and the coach let the unsurprised cat out of the proverbial bag.
“I’ll let you know in a couple of months,” said Tomlin. “That’s life in the National Football League. A few years ago, I wasn’t real comfortable with a guy named Antonio Brown, who was unproven. Over the course of a couple of months, he made me comfortable, and Chris better do the same.”
The news that Rainey will be the punt returner is not shocking being as he and fellow rookie Marquis Maze have been the only two that have punt returns to their credit thus far in the preseason. One person that it appears won\’t return punts, at least initially, is wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who was told most of the offseason that he would be the return man this year.
Although Rainey appears to have the job, he didn\’t win it due his stats as the Florida product has returned only 5 punts through the first 3 preseason games for a total of 21 yards. His longest return of those 5 went for 11 yards and his average is a dismal 4.2 yards per punt return. Maze didn\’t do any better in his chances as his 4 returns went for a grand total of 8 yards.
It is hard to knock either player, though, as the Steelers are still trying to fit the right players in on special teams. Preseason special team stats, like all preseason stats, are worthless.
Although Tomlin didn\’t state specifically, Rainey will also likely be the Steelers kickoff man in addition. In that category he has 2 returns for 43 yards heading into the preseason finale Thursday night.
Last season Antonio Brown handled most of the kickoff and punt return duties and he posted 30 punt returns for 325 yards to go along with 1 touchdown.
The decision by Tomlin to not have either Brown or Sanders on return duty is a result of the bigger roles that both players now play on offense. Limiting the risk of injury to both players, by not having either handle returns makes good sense, especially in the case of the injury plagued Sanders.
With Rainey now evidently the man, the likelihood of David Gilreath making the roster now is greatly diminished as he is not considered a big special teams player outside of his ability to return kicks. The same goes for Derrick Williams, who is trying to make the final 53 man roster as a 5th receiver.