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Next Steelers’ Return Man Likely To Be On Offensive Side Of The Ball

Gary Russell. Felix Jones. Najeh Davenport. These are just a sampling of offensive players deemed “the guy” on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ return units under Mike Tomlin. It’s a common source of frustration for fans with middling return numbers and the failure to find an impact player who could stick for more than two seasons.

And whether there is an actual causation here or not, there certainly is, at the least, a correlation between who the Steelers deem as their punt and/or kick returners. Under Tomlin, only one defensive player has seen the majority of kick or punt returns in a single season. Let’s go ahead and recap.

2015

Kick Return: Dri Archer
Punt Return: Antonio Brown

2014

Kick Return: Markus Wheaton
Punt Return: Antonio Brown

2013

Kick Return: Felix Jones
Punt Return: Antonio Brown

2012

Kick Return: Chris Rainey
Punt Return: Antonio Brown

2011

Kick Return: Antonio Brown
Punt Return: Antonio Brown

2010

Kick Return: Emmanuel Sanders
Punt Return: Antonio Brown

2009

Kick Return: Stefan Logan
Punt Return: Stefan Logan

2008

Kick Return: Gary Russell
Punt Return: Santonio Holmes

2007

Kick Return: Allen Rossum
Punt Return: Allen Rossum

Stepping back and looking at the list, the only defensive player who appears on this list is Rossum, traded for before the start of the 2007 season, bu lasting just that year before being released. The rest are littered with various receivers and running backs. If you look closely, you’ll notice there has yet to be someone to lead the team in kick returns in back-to-back seasons.

Looking at the discrpency even further, post-Rossum, only one defensive player has had more than a single return in either phase. That man was Joe Burnett, who returned three kickoffs in 2009, one of which was him falling on a ball at the end of the Oakland Raidders loss.

It’s not as if the Steelers haven’t had the options. Brandon Boykin is the most recent and perhaps best example. A team starved for a boost in the return game following Archer’s release, Boykin was never given an opportunity.

And sure, intuitively, you’re going to have more offensive players handle return duties than defensive ones. But the Cincinnati Bengals have had Pacman Jones, the Baltimore Ravens Lardarius Webb, and though the Cleveland Browns haven’t had any defensive players on those units, they’ve found elite talent in Travis Benjamin and Josh Cribbs.

This draft doesn’t have a ton of notable defensive backs with return ability though someone like Morgan Burns and Cyrus Jones, who we profiled here and here come to mind.

This isn’t to demand the team find a corner who can return, only merely to point out the curiosity that one hasn’t been tried in eight years. Maybe this is coincidence. Or maybe the team just prefers its return men to be on the offensive side, used to catching and running with the football, more comfortable with the football in their hands and in turn, increasing the coaching staff’s trust. And that’s how we arrive at Gary Russell and Mewelde Moore returning kicks. Not for their big play ability, but trust and decision-making.

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