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.

About the Author

Alex Kozora
Full-time blogger from mom's basement. Marrying tape and statistics. Chidi Iwuoma is my favorite Steeler of all-time.
  • WreckIess

    It won’t matter who the returner is if they can’t fix the return blocking. It’s been awful under Danny Smith.

  • Ike Evans

    Morgan burns, keivarae russell, cyrus jones……i feel like im forgetting one

  • PittsburghSports

    Mo Canady can do it as well, although very limited opportunities.

  • Alex Kozora

    Yeah I meant to add Jones last night. Thanks Ike.

  • Jim Foles

    Sammy Coates may be well rested

  • Andrew

    Gary Russel was the man!

  • Jeff Papiernik

    Tyler Ervin and Jakeem Grant could do the job as well.

  • Alex Kozora

    They are on offense.

  • William Weaver

    Stefan Logan looked great in the preseason. Kept waiting and waiting when the season started. Was a huge disappointment.

  • Biggie

    There are a number of return types in the draft – C. Jones (who I really don’t want), Kenyan Drake,
    Jalen Marshall, Braxon Miller, Tyler Ervin, Pharoah Cooper, Demarcus Ayers, Ed Eagan, Jakeem Grant,
    DeAndre Reaves, Bralon Addison, Chris Moore, Tyler Boyd, Paul McRoberts, Morgan Burns.

    Problem is the guys you want to bring in who can also contribute in other than just STs will go no later than 4th round. I’d love to add a RB or WR who can contribute in the offense and develop over next two years to see more time and still have return abilities. Ervin, Cooper, Miller would really be nice but don’t want to use any round from 1-3 on anything other than defense.

  • PittsburghSports

    I don’t care what side of the ball he’s on, because more times than not Tomlin has shown a preference in bringing in players that specialize in returning. Their other position was really their secondary position. We got lucky with AB and Sanders for a bit, but Rossum, Logan, Rainey, and even Acher all had their moments, and those guys were returners before they were anything else. I’m hoping Eli Rogers is the next guy on that list.

  • John Noh

    Why really bother? The league has essentially taken the kickoff out of the game. Sure there may be a good return here or there but it’s not that critical of a position until the kick gets moved back five yards. Just find someone who won’t f up the catch and kneel.

  • Joseph Duffy

    I’ve wondered about that too, everyone we put back there fails.

  • Jon Crissinger

    Is there going to be a draft profile for Jalin Marshall? I keep slotting him as our 6th round comp pick. Guy is fearless as a punt returner, almost never made a fair catch. He’s a WR from Ohio State

  • Jon Crissinger

    I really like Jalin Marshall as a returner.

  • Matthew Marczi

    He didn’t return one for a score but he was far from a disappointment. He averaged 26.7 yards on 55 kick returns for 1466 yards and 9.3 yards on 30 punt returns for 280 yards. He had 4 kick returns of at least 40 yards and 3 punt returns of at least 20 yards. His 1746 return yards are a franchise record.

  • William Weaver

    I guess my expectations were too high after that preseason. Thanks for the correction. Am I right about that preseason? Wasn’t he amazing in preseason?

  • Matthew Marczi

    Well, he had an 80-yard punt return touchdown in his first game, averaged 15 yards per punt return in his second, then averaged 12 yards per punt return and 39 yards per kick return on 4 each in his third, at which point Tomlin already decided he made the team because he didn’t return anything in the final preseason game.

  • Matthew Marczi

    The average team will still return two kicks per game. There were 1081 kicks returned last season, though the Steelers were below that average–partly because they were scored on less than average, and so received fewer kickoffs.

  • William Weaver

    Not too shabby! Thanks for the info!

  • Taylor Williams

    Exactly. I don’t know why kick returning is a thing anymore. We could put Wheaton back there and call it a day.

  • jsteeler

    I was going to state some of the same stats. I thought He did Great! I was surprised they let him go. Did well in Detroit.

  • jsteeler

    I am thinking Eli Rodgers and Shakim Phillips will have an opportunity to unseat Antonio this year hopefully. If not, Wheaton and Brown will suffice.

  • jsteeler

    Yes Sir. I concur but, this is the same outfit on punt returns. I guess AB is just that Frickin Awesome!

  • Trevor

    I was also thinking that Eli Rogers is a possibility this year. He’s relatively unknown bc of the foot injury but showed promise at WR, even working with the 1’s in camp before getting hurt. Could be an option in the return game.

  • Limousine Liberal

    Eliminating muffs, fumbles and poor decisions is all the Steelers need to do in the return game. Let the offense do the work. I don’t want to see AB taking punts anymore, though, he’s too important to expose like that.

  • Jeff Burton

    Stefan Logan was the only good return man the Steelers have had in years. 26.7 yards per return. Of course the Steelers got rid of him after one season. It hardly matters anymore anyway since wimp-pants Goodell has all but got rid of kickoffs. That should be the first thing that comes back under Commissioner Lambert.

  • Jeff Burton

    As Matthew pointed out, Stefan Logan was far from a disappointment. He was the Steelers ground yardage leader that year. Arians and Tomlin were idiots for getting rid of him. The reason they gave was that they couldn’t figure out a way to use him on offense. I think that’s more a problem with Arians and Tomlin, myself. It hardly matters anymore with stupid-ass Goodell moving the kickoffs forward. They may as well just spot the ball at the 20 yard line. Jack Lambert of Commissioner!!!