2017 South Side Questions: Will Steelers Consider Making Change At Kick Returner?


The regular season is now over, and the Pittsburgh Steelers are taking their practices at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex, formerly known and still referred to as the ‘South Side’ facility of Heinz Field. While the postseason is now upon us, there is plenty left to be done.

And there are plenty of questions left unanswered as well. The offseason is just really the beginning phase of the answer-seeking process, which is lasts all the way through the Super Bowl for teams fortunate enough to reach that far.

You can rest assured that we have the questions, and we will be monitoring the developments in the playoffs as they develop, and beyond, looking for the answers as we look to evaluate the makeup of the Steelers as they try to navigate their way back to playoff success, in which they are, at least supposed to be, among the favorites to win the Super Bowl.

Question: Will the Steelers actually consider making a change at the kick returner position after Sunday’s performance?

In Sunday’s Wildcard game against the Dolphins, the Steelers recorded three kick returns. None of them actually managed to reach the 20-yard line. Two were fielded by Fitzgerald Toussaint, while one was taken by Sammie Coates.


On the opening kickoff for the game, Toussaint fielded the ball at the goal line, but was only able to bring it out to the 15-yard line before he went down. The Steelers were able to compensate for the poor starting field position, however, with an 85-yard drive that ended with a 50-yard touchdown.

After a late first-quarter field goal, the Dolphins kicked off again, and once again, it was fielded by Toussaint. This was a short kick and he had no choice but to return it, from the five-yard line, but he gained just 12 yards, out to the 17. The offense responded with an 83-yard touchdown drive.

The third time around, after another field goal, it was Coates who fielded the kickoff, taking it out of the end zone from four yards deep. He returned it 22 yards to the 18-yard line. The offense responded by throwing an interception after another promising drive, and nearly led to points for the Dolphins the other way.

The Steelers were able to compensate on Sunday for the obvious very bad performance form their kick return unit. When you have three returns and none of them reach the 25, yes, it is a very bad performance. And really, it hasn’t been all that much better throughout the year.

Toussaint is actually currently in the concussion protocol. If he is still in the protocol by Sunday, he will obviously not be able to play in the game. But would the Steelers actually consider turning to somebody other than Coates? They briefly did use Justin Gilbert for a couple of games, but that trial run ended abruptly.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi
Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Steve Johnson

    To make a change this late in the year could backfire. However, Coates and Touissant is useless and gave been all year. Why the hell did Tomlin stick with those two. Mismanagement of the clock and personnel continues to be a problem with Tomlin.

  • will

    Maybe this is part of what BRADSHAW had in mind when he commented on Tomlin’s coaching abilities.

  • Kevin artis

    Plus I’m not sure we are getting the blocking we need on kick returns.
    At this point, I just want them to just secure the ball.
    I mention on another post that having Ayers field kickoffs for the first time on the road during a playoff game at Arrowhead could be detrimental. I would be more comfortable if he did it during the regular season.

  • Steel B

    This should have been done weeks ago.

  • Phil Brenneman II

    The Steelers coaching staff make change about as quickly as a 90 year old cashier. So no, they probably haven’t even considered it.

    I am kind of already over harping about it at this point but man is it frustrating. I get that we aren’t there to see everything day to day but what more is there to see with Toussaint? The guy can catch the ball, awesome. So can 20 other guys on the team and some of them might actually be smart enough to figure out the field position battle to go along with it.

    I would be okay if he was just inept as a return man. Some of that can go on blocking and scheme. What I can’t forgive is that he isn’t smart enough to down the ball and our coaches aren’t smart enough to make him do it or get him out of there. How much do Danny Smith and Tomlin get paid for this?

  • SteelerFanInMD

    The first change they should make is strategy. Only return the kick if it is caught short of the end zone. Otherwise, take the ball at the 25 yard line. How hard can that be?

  • The Chin

    If Ayers has a hat, there’s no sound logic that I’ve seen to keep him from returning kicks. And poor Danny Smith’s job might hinge on it frankly.

  • Rocksolid20

    Not going to put a rookie in that situation .

  • Gizmosteel

    Tyreek Hill is a rookie for those living in their fears. Just sayin…

  • Craig M

    Ayers- he played decent in his first NFL start so why not try him returning? Better to do something even if it doesn’t work out than to do nothing because you feel it might be wrong. If your in a battle do you try and battle back or just hunker down and hope for the best? I say don’t live in your fears!

  • Jim Foles

    Hill is going to beat Ben, Brown, Bell, Rogers, James in scoring? If so, we deserve to lose the game.

  • falconsaftey43

    Kick returns aren’t exactly high pressure (unlike a punt return). He has plenty of time to field it and even recover if he muffs it. If they trust him enough to hang onto the ball on offense, should be no different for a kickoff.

  • falconsaftey43

    Kick returner is one of those things I’d love to know what goes on in deciding who will be the returner. How much does Danny Smith get to control it vs. Tomlin? Do they consider other guys in practice? Do they even talk about changing it up? At least we do know Tomlin thinks it’s been a problem.

  • Mark

    It’s not like they do a good job of block for the returners, you can see the other team defenders at about the 15 or 20 yard line so quick. They are not a good block punt or kick return team. Add to the fact that Fitz’s runs about a 4.9 40yd dash doesn’t help. So the combination of bad blocking and slow returner gets you out to the 15.

    However, I wouldn’t change and risk having a rookie like DeMarcus fumble away our playoff chances. No thank you. Once, I would like to see a gadget on the punt and/or kick return like we did with AB. Especially against the Cheatriots.

  • SwagDaddy330

    My thoughts exactly. Does it really matter at this point? The Steelers KR problems seem to be more of a scheme thing and not a personnel thing.

  • NinjaMountie

    I think they need to make wholesale changes. There is no blocking and the returners are stupid. There is just nothing good to say about the KR team.
    Now prove me wrong and return one against KC you igits.

  • tcirish53@gmail.com

    Hey Matthew! Have you guys done a film room study of the KR blocking?

    I have long contended that even God himself couldn’t make it to the 25 with the piss-poor blocking that our KRs have in front of them!!!

    And it has been this way seemingly FOREVER now!! Perhaps now that he has the O line doing so well, Coach Munch can teach our KR team to block too!!!

  • RickM

    I was going to ask if the “returners were stupid” or poorly coached or both. But I think you’re right that it most often falls on the returners’ poor judgement. Toussaint, as lead blocker, would have been instructed not to catch and return a kickoff that is sailing into the endzone and taking his initial momentum backwards.

  • Scunge

    If anyone is going to fumble it will probably be Coates with that damaged hand of his, I mean really, who puts a player with that disability as a kick returner? Ayers didn’t seem to fumble at all in college at Houston. Also, everyone gets so enamored with blocking, but sometimes blocking can be bad and you still get a good/great return because the return man is just that good. At the end of the day, if you have a return man that has instincts, that has shiftiness, that can make one or two would be tacklers miss it can make all the difference in the world, regardless of the blocking.

    Right now Coates and Fitz are liabilities out there. Coates has no change of direction, no wiggle, he is the stiffest kick returner I have ever seen. Fitz just has no speed or instincts.

    Ayers and Gilbert combined for 8 TD returns in college. I get the feeling we could have Devin Hester in his prime and somehow he wouldn’t get a chance either.

  • michael young

    He is just stating that Tyreek Hill (who is an amazing returner) is also a rookie and that shouldn’t deter a coaching staff from putting one in. Out of all the players on KC, Hill is the most dangerous. He can score so many different ways (KR, PR, WR, RB). They better game plan for him.

  • Simon Cutts

    Coates and Toussaint are not return men ever. Toussaint had space on one return but was so slow he was caught from behind. Kick return like punt return requires a very specific type of quick twitch athlete (look at the chiefs), and there are are those types on the team. I’d blame Smith for having the wrong people back there, but after hearing the HC’s comments on just needing to catch it, run forward and get on with real football i’m not so sure that Smith is making those decisions. Specials can flip the field as the coach says, but why have relatively slow and ponderous types when we have Rogers, Ayers and Gilbert available? Kind of too late now.

  • pittfan

    Hubbard can catch

  • AndyR34

    Put him in, coach!

  • AndyR34

    I’m guessing that our strategery is based upon MT thinking we are better off starting behind our 25 than beyond it.

  • Dshoff

    I wonder why Gilbert got taken off the kick returns in the first place. At least he had a couple of good returns. And since we don’t return well, how hard is it to instruct your returners to down it if you are even one inch in the end zone? If safety of the football is key, then this is also the safest thing to do. Geez, this isn’t that hard of a concept.

  • Donte Williams

    disagree i think one its about the blocking and two with the non blocking we have can we sit here and think Ayers can take a hit hold on to the ball. Gilbert not sure about maybe at practice he is not fielding the kicks possibly dropping them or not reading his blocks unless we get a practice report about what goes on during special teams play we will never know this is not training camp where fans can be at practice and see whats going on all we can go off is the word of reliable sources game play and the coaches

  • Don

    Even more than that. A ball fielded at the 5, for example, would make it into the end zone. The key in my opinion is maximizing the rate of touchbacks.

  • dany

    This point of the year, no. And I cant blame them. CAN blame them for not doing it earlier, though to be fair 7 game winning streak u dont wanna mess with too much. If anything do it in the bye week, roughly half of the year, and by then Coates hand was hurt (well more than now!) so it made even more sense. Alas…

  • Gizmosteel

    Yup

  • LucasY59

    since Tomlin said “the special teams aren’t special” there is a chance there will be some change (he specifically mentioned that Ayers or Gilbert could be an option) there is probably just as good of a chance it stays the same (since they havent changed it by now, why would they do it in the most important game they have played thus far) I would really like to see some things switched up since there is just as much risk in having the poor returns (resulting in bad field position) negatively impacting the game, as there is for a new guy to make a mistake (the “old” guys are making mistakes when they dont take the touchback and have the drive start shorter than the 25 yd line) like the article said Fitz might be out so they would be forced to change it up (how much it actually changes is the bigger ?)

  • LucasY59

    a live ball bouncing around near the endzone is a BAD situation, they have to field it in the air (who knows where it will bounce if they try to one hop it, just so they can get a touchback) if the opposing ST scheme is to try and force a return by kicking it short the Steelers need to use it against them and get a decent return (which requires decent returners and blocking) they should be no worse than the 20 yd line on a kick that doesnt make it into the endzone

  • AndyR34

    Actually…your points are fairly valid. I forgot to use the sarcasm font.

  • LucasY59

    the thing that makes it obvious to me is that he can do no worse than what the other returners have done so far, if he returns one to the 15 its not that much different…

  • LucasY59

    AB was a rookie when he was returning kicks, so I dont see why Ayers cant return also

  • Don

    You’re right, it’s more complicated than that. If the kick is a low line drive I think you can count on it skipping into the end zone, but if there’s more air under it, who knows? And it’s probably not a good idea to add more responsibility for the return man making the decision in that spot. For when they’re forced to return the kick, I think they just need the fastest, most elusive runner they can use. The blocking is never worth a (darn), so that’s the best we can hope for…until next year, that is.

  • Dubb Betts

    Should they make a change? Yes. Will they ? Probably Not.

  • Matthew Marczi

    The blocking is part of the problem (something we’ve talked about in recent years), but a combination of bad decisions and lack of quickness from the returners helps explain why they literally have one quality kick return all year.

  • SoCal Steeler

    This is one of those baffling personnel decisions, i.e. the Antonio Blake experiment. I think we all know that Gilbert, Ayers or Rodgers would all be more explosive and elusive than Toussaint back there.
    The only reason I can come up with is Coaches favoritism over better talent. As a fan I hate to see it, put your best talent out there. In my opinion for now it would be Gilbert, he has NFL experience doing it. I’m actually almost hoping that Fitz doesn’t pass protocol this week and they’ll have to make a change.

  • Steeler-Drew

    Agree. Nobody can say with a straight face Toussiant and Coates are better options than Gilbert. Last year their best returner in Todman never got a shot either. Gilbert should have been inserted from day 1, but Tomlin made this bed. I know there were games when Gilbert was inactive but what is most bothersome is when he was active he still didn’t get a chance to return kicks. This position has been mismanaged and it’s an embarrassment at this point to have Toussiant back there. You could also argue Coates has no business being back there either. Hopefully either Gilbert or Ayers gets a shot this week.

  • RickM

    We were only about 59% in KO touchbacks this year, and K.C. was even lower at 56%. So my guess is few kickoffs will make the endzone with the anticipated freezing rain conditions. I hate seeing Toussaint back there. But I don’t know what I’d do if I was Tomlin. If we are going to insert someone new, he better have sure hands.

  • Steel Realist PAul

    Might as well just down it all the time.

    That said, when Gilbert did return, it was the first time I’ve seen someone look dangerous for us.