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.