Demarcus Ayers Ready And Willing To Return Kicks

This might not exactly come to you as a shock, but the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t exactly have the most electric kick return game. In fact, it was kind of embarrassing on Sunday against the Dolphins. Fitzgerald Toussaint returned two kicks for a combined 26 yards, with a long of 15, and Sammie Coates added a return of 22 yards that he took from four yards deep in the end zone, leaving the offense at the 18.

Maybe, just maybe, it may have something to do with the fact that they are using a bunch of players—including Cobi Hamilton, and in recent years, Markus Wheaton—who have little to no experience in their history of functioning as returners. Admittedly, that is not the only problem, and, as Alex Kozora will argue, ball security is the greatest value in a returner.

But if the coaching staff—namely Danny Smith—would show even a modicum of boldness, perhaps they should turn their eyes toward rookie wide receiver Demarcus Ayers, who is apparently trustworthy enough to be called on to make big catches in key situations since being called up from the practice squad a few games ago, but not to do any return work, which is why he was ostensibly drafted.

It is true that the Steelers actually drafted Ayers because Smith, their special teams coach, felt that he was the best punt returner in the draft. But unlike the aforementioned returners, he actually has an accomplished background in returning kicks as well, and he is more than willing to take the mantle once again even though he focused on punts in his last season. During his freshman year, however, he returned 37 kicks for a 27.6-yard average with a touchdown.

I would love to be back there”, Ayers recently told Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, before adding, “or whoever gives us the best chance to give us great field position”. He also said that “we have to be on the same page and get more out of that group”.

I would say so, as the Steelers averaged just 21.5 yards per return during the regular season, and their first game of the playoffs showed even worse results. They had just one return go for at least 40 yards, and that was a 44-yarder, courtesy of Coates.

Rutter notes that Head Coach Mike Tomlin acknowledged last week that Ayers is “capable” of returning kicks, but if there is one area of the game that he truly lives in his fears it is at the kick return position, evidently. With a permanent residence.

I certainly wouldn’t expect any changes to be made, however, at this point in the season. Toussaint, for some reason, will continue to take the majority of kick returns, and will continue to feature a mixture of good decisions, bad decisions, and thoroughly underwhelming returns, while leaving Coates in the position of pretending to be a blocker.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • CP72

    If we’re an opposing team special teams coach I would ask my kicker to intentionally not kick the ball into the end zone. I’d like my chances with Toussiant.

  • Ken Krampert

    Agreed. I pray for kicks to go out of the end zone. On the other hand, I will be praying for our kicks to go out of the end zone this week against KC. I personally am living in my fears of a Tyreek Hill return or 2. I assume with our ST performance this year that Danny Smiths days are numbered. ST may be the difference this weekend…..

  • Kevin artis

    I would not put Ayers back there to return kicks for the first time in a playoff game on the road. Should not happen.
    The two we have should just field the ball and just come out to the 25. If it’s in the field of play just get as many yards as you can. My important is just holding onto the ball.

  • Steve Johnson

    Dead on point! Trying to use too many players! Why is Sammie Coats dressing? What does he offer the team? They should have tried Ayers weeks ago.

  • blackandgoldBullion

    Gilbert, Coates and Ayers give you more explosive potential back there. Since they never get a chance, just field the ball in the end zone and take a knee.

    Take a look at that return the other day when the blocking finally seemed to be set up well. It looked like a big return coming and I jumped to me feet. Alas, it was not to be as Toussaint did not have the speed to get by the first guy even though he seemed to have a head of steam. Oh well.

  • Mark

    I would try next year, too much downside with a rookie returning kicks at this stage of the year (stakes and weather). If he had acquired pro experience earlier in the year then I could understand.

  • Mark

    Sammie and DHB are fast enough to make the punt returner call for a fair catch. That is there only value besides making the long catch when the opportunity presents itself

  • ‘Cuse

    Remember when Najeh Davenport was the kick returner? Well, we have that now with Toussaint.


    Interesting thing about this is that Fitz was the one who fumbled in DEN last year in the POs (although not as a KR).

  • steelburg

    He is a solid number 3 running back but he has to be the worst kick returner I have ever seen lol. Its really not his fault he just doesn’t have the skill set to be back there, but the coaches keep putting him back there. We have so many options that would be way better but I think Tomlin is content because Toussaint is holding on to the football.

  • falconsaftey43

    And Gary Russel!

  • budabar

    We allready have the best returner in the NFL he should be returning both punts and kicks during the playoffs remember YOU CAN’T LIVE IN YOUR FEARS

  • srdan

    In my opinion the coaches missed the opportunity to try this vs the Browns. If that experiment went well I would put him in on Sunday. But without that experience I’m not letting a rookie try it for the first time in the divisional round.

    Anyway, our returners are bad by yardage, but good by holding onto the rock. And with an offense like we have that’s most of the battle. We don’t need to start drives at the 35.

  • capehouse

    I’ve never seen a team live in their fears as much as Pittsburgh does on specialteams.

  • capehouse

    Steelers started at their 15, 17, and 18 on drives after a kickoff against the Dolphins.

  • srdan

    Like I said, for our offense, that is no big deal.

  • AndyR34

    Sad…but true!

  • AndyR34

    You fid say that, but…vs. the Chiefs or Pats that is not a good place to be when you have maybe a 10% chance or less of advancing beyond the 25.

  • AndyR34

    But they have good reason to do so.

  • capehouse

    I beg to differ and I think the stats back me up. Starting inside the 20 is a detriment no matter how good your offense is. Alex did a study awhile back correlating field position and points per drive and it clearly showed there was a big dip in production for the Steelers when they started inside their 20.

  • Steel Tippin

    Please God, anybody but Croissant.

  • Steel Tippin

    Field position is always a big deal. It’s not like this offense is putting up 30+ points a game. Starting on the 15 vs. the 25 could be the difference between 3 points and no points.

  • JNick

    No they don’t. Their special teams is poor because they live in their fears, not the other way around.

  • Steel Tippin

    Not really.

  • Steel Tippin

    Lol right. I’m willing to bet even artie could do a better job returning kicks but it’ll never happen because we all know defensive players always fumble the ball any chance they’re given.

  • Steel Tippin

    Davenport was better.

  • srdan

    That is the old school way of thinking about it. In a league that favors running and each yard is tough to get, i agree it’s valuable. In todays NFL that avearges 4 more points per game than 15 years ago…..meh

    Keep something in mind. We as fans think we are facing the best return team in teh game and we are the worst. Stats show that KC averages 2.1yards more per return.

    What nobody is talking about, as bad as our special teams are at stopping the returns, we are third worst, guess who fourth worst is.

  • Jason Vancil

    I wonder why DHB has never returned KO’s. Seems like with his speed he would be good at it.

  • NYCSteelCurtain

    I would not say it’s poor. We aren’t going to get a TD every year. It’s about possession and trust. They trust AB to make the right decisions and they trust Toussaint to not fumble it away. I’d take that over fumbles and muffs.

  • Steel Tippin

    That’s all good but special teams is still a phase of the game and it’s a phase that hasn’t been contributing to our success at all. Coaches shouldn’t be content with not making mistakes. That is a prime example of living in your fears.

  • Steelgator

    Or we could use the 7th best KR man in the league last year, who just happens to be sitting on the bench watching the 5th worst kick returner in the league routinely sacrifice 10 yards of field position by running the ball out to the 15.

    Sure, Ayers could theoretically give the return game a boost possibly. He was a good KR as a freshman in 2013. Of course, he stunk in 2014 and as a result hasn’t returned a kick since then. I’m sure though, that the coaches would be much more comfortable using a guy with no professional experience returning kicks based on the fact that he was up and down in college, even though they aren’t comfortable using a guy who was top 10 in the NFL last year.

  • LucasY59

    especially since Shamarko is on IR, they need guys that can force a fair catch (or be fast enough to get down and keep the kick from getting into the endzone for a touchback)

  • LucasY59

    no shiftiness (just straight line speed) need to be able to make a guy miss, and he has not had the best track record with having sure hands

  • Steel Tippin

    By old school you mean smart? Are you saying that starting at the 25 yard line vs. the 40 yard line would make little to no difference in today’s game? In the playoffs?? It’s called a game of inches for a reason. Against the ravens if we had to start that drive from say the 21st yard line instead of the 20th we would have lost that game. The amount of points teams average is no determinant of the value of field position holds. Your logic is extremely flawed.
    As for special teams, idk if you’ve seen tyreke hill play, but the guy is devin hester-ish, he can house it anytime he touches the ball, he’s that good. Their ST coverage might be as bad as ours, but the biggest difference with us is we don’t have a guy like that. If not for this guy, KC would be no real threat but alas.

  • RickM

    I don’t get Danny Smith, I really don’t. He has a KO returner who most times doesn’t get the ball back anywhere close to the 25. Then he watches the guy – in a playoff game – catch the first KO running backwards into the endzone and returning it to the 16. And the terrible judgement and lost 10 yards just don’t matter. The guy is back there for every other kickoff.

    What does it take for Danny to replace a guy? He’s writing his own termination notice by ignoring the same mistakes over and over.

  • SilverSteel

    You guys are right. The Browns game was a perfect game to try out Ayers AND Gilbert in the KR role and yet again, we passed on the opportunity to shore up our ST. Truly baffling being that we are on a run and have a real chance at a championship. We are going to need every edge we can get if we make it to he Patriots. To beat the best, you must have “all three phases” clicking – period.

  • NYCSteelCurtain

    It’s the playoffs, rather have the ball secured to put it into the hands of our Triple B’s instead of “trying out”someone. Eli muffed a punt vs the Browns (we recovered it but still). Can’t afford that against Chiefs/Pats

  • SilverSteel

    Tyreke Hill looks like a freaking speed demon. We need every edge we can get in the next two games. Chiefs on the rode is going to be way different than last time, and the Patriots on the rode is just depressing considering our last few visits. We need ST to improve quickly. I can’t believe we are content to stay as we are right now. We have had all season to address this issue and we have 2 KR specialists on the team and we won’t give them a try – even at Cleveland? It makes no sense at all.

  • srdan

    By old school i was referring to a full back and nose tackle playing 70% or more of the game.

    25 to 40 is almost a tox play, and i’m a believer in that stat. So no. If you think that Ayers will make that big of a difference – you’re mistaken.

    What is your argument anyway? Disproving what I said? Look at what I said, as long as we’re not fumbling teh ball, on average we are 2 yards worse per kick off than Kansas City.

    Hill is good. Averaging 27.4 yds/return this year. And he returned one for a TD. But please don’t call him Hester yet. Let it play out over the next few years. Just for comparison Coates averages 25yards/return this year.

  • RickM

    Very true. We just gave away 20 yards Sunday on two kickoff returns. Those kinds of things will matter against New England and even K.C.

  • LucasY59

    I have said it before, they need to stop with the 2 guys back in the endzone, there is enough time for a guy to line up in the middle and get under the kick no matter where the kicker aims the kick (if it goes deep into one of the corners they are going to kneel for a touchback anyway) Fitz is not useful as a returner and having him on the opposite side actually makes his main role ineffective (supposed to be the lead blocker for Coates) line Touissaint up at the goal line and Coates 5 yds behind him

    IF they are too stubborn to change the scheme and keep the 2 returners back they need to move Coates over to Fitz’s spot and put Ayers (or someone else that can give them a decent return) opposite of him (Coates can function as the blocking (secondary) returner that can also give them a chance at a decent return, and a guy like Ayers in the primary returner spot, that has had previous success as a returner and has better elusiveness (to make the 1st guy miss, which is another issue since it doesnt seem that the blocking is all that great on most returns and getting past the 1st cover guy is usually the difference in a 20 yd return and a 30 yd one)

    they also need to make better decisions on when to take a kick out of the endzone, with KO TBs marked at the 25 there better be a very good chance of getting better field position with the return, not only are the 20ish yd returns ineffective but also result in a 5+ yd loss in field position

  • srdan

    Who is saying that our ST are good?

    If you’re referring to me, I said we should not let a rookie get out there this game. The risk vs reward is just not there for me. The reward shows that on average is 2 yards. But putting a rookie back there could yield a TO.

  • Steel Tippin

    How do we go from special teams to fullbacks and nose tackles? What did I say about demarcus ayers being the return man? I’m just saying our special teams need to be better all-around, whatever that requires. I didn’t call him hester. I said Hester-ish, he has that ability to take over a game, and against our coverage units it could be dangerous. I see you haven’t been paying much attention to KC at all, he’s probably the biggest reason for KC’s late season success, winning games for them almost single-handedly. Go check what he did to Denver’s defense the last game. Coates isn’t anything close to hill in terms of ability to make people miss, comparing their escape ability is laughable quite honestly.

  • Steeler-Drew

    Personally I would put both Ayers and Gilbert back there but would be happy with at least one of them if they field the kick. Even having Toussiant back there is now beyond ridiculous. It’s like he is running in quick sand. I could care less he has not fumbled. Making the fact that he has not fumbled of importance is like to choosing to play a WR over the more talented one because he is a better blocker.

  • srdan

    You asked what I consider old school football. The era of FB and NT playing a lot I consider old school football.

    Yes, Hills run of the three games is great. He is what he is. Not a player that can be your workhorse like a AB or Leveon Bell. He is someone you sprinkle in. And Andy Reid is good at getting the ball to his players. Someone without a doubt we have to game plan for. But let’s not make him out to be Gronkowski.

    And yes, Hills elusiveness to anyone in the NFL today is “laughable”. But comparing him to a healthy Coates is a fair comparison. Both add a dimension to an offense that needs to be well accounted for or you will get torched.

    But if your whole argument was that we need special teams to be better, we could have saved some paragraphs.

  • srdan

    Oh and by the way, when we played the chiefs, they scored 14. Hill had two TDs. I don’t need to watch the Denver game to know who he is. And our team is well aware of his capabilities.

  • SilverSteel

    I am only making the case that we had a chance with the Browns to try out 2 KR specialists and passed up that opportunity. Shame on us for not doing so. We are going to need all 3 phases for the next 2 games and I am not of the opinion that our offense is so good that we do not need the field position advantage. When we are on the road in KC and maybe Foxborough, I think we are going to need all the help we can get. Sorry if I was too aggressive in my former reply. I do respect your viewpoint.

  • Steel Tippin

    Dude, how old are you? Since when is a WR/KR ever considered a workhorse? You say hill’s elusiveness is second to none yet you consider sammie coates who has nothing more than strength and straight-line speed a fair comparison? Seriously? Gronkowsk??? Do you even know who we’re talking about? Coates isn’t getting handoffs out of the backfield and outrunning entire defenses.

    Forget about week 4. This a whole new offense. Im sure they weren’t game planning on a low round rookie to be their playmaker in offense In week 4. Teams are well aware of bell’s capabilitites, does that stop him from going off?

  • srdan

    I’m 33.

    You refuse to use reading comprehension. The way I see it, Hill and Coates(healthy) have similar impacts on games. Neither is a workhorse, but both affect defensive game plans.

    Your comments of almost single-handedly winning games and hester-ish seem to point to the fact that you think his impact on a game is yuge.

    You have no point. You just like to argue. Thanks for helping me pass time at work today.

  • Steel Tippin

    I’m not fully convinced you even know what reading comprehension is tbh. Your points are ridiculous. Desean Jackson, sproles, hell even AB would be a far better comparison as far as player type. His game and coates’ bear no resemblance, none whatsoever, he’s not a one-trick pony. How can you accurately assess a player you admittedly have barely watched? He’s a rookie, not the same player he was in week 4, just like our rookies.

    If you know anything about our defense, you would know that we have a tendency to struggle stopping players like this in the open field. It only takes a couple of plays to take a game over so yes he has that ability with trick plays/runs/screens/returns. I’m not saying he’s the next devin hester, but he’s already one of the most dynamic players in the league (no exaggeration) and he’s on our schedule so yes, combine him with our subpar ST coverage and that makes his potential impact on the game huge. Remember this is just one game and anything can happen. Learn some football, Jesus Christ.

  • gdeuce

    I wonder how many fans remember that Russel scored a rushing TD in SB 43

  • Rob

    Phil and I had this discussion Sunday lol

    I want it to be better so much so that he puts Ayers in there Sunday regardless of the fact that it would be his first and the playoffs, but you have to imagine there’s a reason he’s not.

    Probably most of all, comfortability with the fact that they haven’t turned it over. An at least competent return game could be the difference maker, and if anyone else can give us that chance, we should take it. But I’ll take bad field position instead of a TO any day of the week, and twice on Sunday’s.

  • Zach Clary

    Ayers knows how to return kicks, he’s made catches in big situations, and hasn’t made any real mistakes. I say give the kid a chance, we need someone more electric back there. Toussaint is slow, he looks like he’s running in quick sand when he’s returning kicks. I’d trust Ayers with his prior experience actually being a KR in college, over Toussaint any day of the week.

    The playoffs are not the time to be living in our fears. Have some confidence, some swagger, and go out and leave it all on the field.

  • Kevin artis

    I can understand your thought process. I would feel better if he at least did it during the regular season.