Devil’s Advocate: Plan AB For Punt-Return Duties

You may recall for the past several offseasons that I ran an article series called The Optimist’s/Pessimist’s Take. I used it to explore different issues and topics the Pittsburgh Steelers were facing and took a positive or negative approach, examining each side in a separate article. This is essentially the same idea behind that, only condensed into one article for every topic.

In this version of the idea, I’ll be playing the Devil’s Advocate for both sides of the issue, looking at the best-case and worst-case scenarios in trying to find the range of likely outcomes of what is likely to happen for the Steelers relating to whatever topic the article is covering.

When it comes to the process of trying to construct a championship roster, the reality is that there are a ton of moving parts, and several ways to acquire said parts. There are a lot of things that can go right or wrong in not always predictable ways, so I think it’s helpful to try to look at issues by seeking out the boundaries of the likely positive or negative results.

Topic: Might this be the year that the Steelers settle upon an alternative at the punt return position for Antonio Brown?

When the Steelers first drafted Antonio Brown and got a look at what he was capable of doing, they were looking for ways to get him involved. The first touch of his NFL career was taking a lateral on a kickoff and returning it for a 90-something-yard touchdown. By the end of that year he was making big catches in the playoffs when he was able to get on the field.

In 2011, the Steelers gave him both the kick and punt return duties, and he merely became the first player in NFL history to record 1000 yards as a receiver and 1000 yards as a returner in the same season. His cleats from that season are—or were at least—in Canton.

Since then, however, he has taken on a greater and greater role in the offense, and they have perpetually sought to find alternatives, even claiming Jacoby Jones off waivers and trying him there, which was a fruitless effort.

But how about this year? After giving him $17 million per season, could they finally find an answer? Well, I actually think so.

Given the sudden influx of depth at the wide receiver position, it’s wholly possible that the role of Eli Rogers is reduced heading into his second season on the 53-man roster. Early on last year when he was still getting his bearings the Steelers did give him work on punt returns. As he is more settled, and perhaps even with a lesser role, he could take on that role as his primary contribution this year.

The Steelers also drafted a couple of players this year who are capable of serving as returners, and they will certainly be given the opportunity to compete for a role in that respect in training camp.

But when it comes to Antonio Brown, it’s simply difficult to take him off the field. If they felt good enough about it, the Steelers probably would even want to put him back on kick returns because that unit has been so anemic since he left that role. Brown’s open-field shiftiness, ball security, and ability to shield himself are qualities not easily duplicated.

But they could certainly find somebody willing (or allowed) to take more risks. That could play a role in the ultimate decision as well.

Which side do you lean closer toward?

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

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

  • RW

    I lean toward taking him off the dang field when he’s not on offense. He’s now a 17m investment at WR, one of the most important positions in the game. There’s no reason we should be putting him in the most dangerous situation in football. Period.

  • falconsaftey43

    AB wasn’t a significant factor on PR this year. His averages was like 25th best, he fair catches about half the punts. He is very conservative back there now. He still get’s an explosive play out of a decent percent of the ones he returns, there are just so few of them. I say it’s time for a change. Ayers and Sutton were both among the best PR guys in their draft classes. Sutton will 100% be on the team, so he should be given every chance to take that job. It’s not even about protecting AB (I honestly don’t think PR is very dangerous, especially the way he plays it) I just want a spark from the return game, and AB is too conservative back there now.

  • The Sun is Pro-Black

    No no and no. There are way too many potential return guys on this team now to risk AB, no excuses.

  • Lambert58

    It is high time they take AB off of PR duties. Let’s get Cam Sutton in there from Day 1 to do the heavy lifting on PR.

  • WreckIess

    If he’s the best punt returner(which he probably still is because I don’t think there’s anyone better with the ball in their hands) let him return it. I feel like this comes up every year and every year it’s the same answer. Punt returns are just another play. No more dangerous than any other play that they have him in on. AB knows how to avoid a hit and if Danny Smith actually gets his guys together there will be more lanes for AB to take advantage of.

  • mem359

    I was thinking those extra snaps might wear AB down a bit as the game goes on.
    Even a tiny bit of extra stamina will be useful late in the games.
    If they can find someone who is close enough in PR ability, let AB get more rest.

  • Garrett Hunt

    Why would you take AB off punt returns? The way I see it, the offense is crowded and everyone is going to be fighting for touches. AB will get his but why not average 6 targets and a couple of returns rather than 8 targets and no returns? Furthermore, you give your most electric player a chance to make a game changing impact. We all know he is the best guy on the roster at it. The downside of injury? I could easily argue there is a lower chance of getting injured on 2 punt returns rather than 2 targets.

  • Garrett Hunt

    I just left a comment arguing the other side. However, I respect your opinion here and think that your argument is very valid. I just want the best guy back there.

  • Garrett Hunt

    Have any evidence to back up that most dangerous situation in football claim?

  • Garrett Hunt

    Do you think a single punt return is more dangerous than a single target going across the middle?

  • The Sun is Pro-Black

    Any play is dangerous, which is why I’d rather not have him on the field when he doesn’t have to be.

  • SkoolHouseRoxx

    I just want someone else to return some too. Don’t want to take AB completely off it because he is dangerous there. Just give Sutton a shot or two.

  • falconsaftey43

    Yeah, I don’t get the whole “dangerous” label. I can’t remember the last time a punt returner got hurt, and AB certainly never has. I just feel he’s too cautious back there now. He used to FC about 35% of the time. He was up to 50% last season. Just seems like he/coaches view it as something dangerous they want him to be cautious and FC unless he has a clear opportunity.

  • falconsaftey43

    Well there is no play he has to be on the field for…you’ll never get hurt on the bench, you’ll also never score a TD or make a big play.

  • The Sun is Pro-Black

    Yea, it’s kinda obvious he’s just been trying to avoid injury the last couple of years back there. On half of his returns he just darts straight to the sidelines lol

  • The Sun is Pro-Black

    There are a bunch of guys on the team now who can return punts. Only 1 guy can do what AB does at WR.

  • falconsaftey43

    Yes, I’d agree with that. I want him off not because of the “danger” but because I think someone who plays it more aggressively will be better back there than AB is now.

  • The Sun is Pro-Black

    Yea I don’t want to say it’s dangerous to be a PR, but it’s unnecessary risk for your best WR.

  • SfSteeler

    there is the most important reason, hes a badass return man!

    that being said, there are players, Eli and Coates, who may be on the outside looking in at there wr positions, and thus will be looking to get on the field and effect the game…enter available KR/PR duties…

    plus, i dont want Sutton for these duties because he must focus on learning his role in Butlers D…Period…lol

  • budabar

    Brown is the best in the league use him , as Tomlin likes to say (you can’t live in your fears) every time AB gets his hands on the ball he’s a threat to score USE HIM THERE

  • falconsaftey43

    He certainty wasn’t statistically the best in the league at PR last year. 12th in explosive plays, 22nd in avg, 25th in yards, called for fair catch on 50% of them, 0 TDs. 17 different guys managed to come up with at least 1 40 yard return, AB had 0.

  • John Phillips

    I was hoping Ayers will be able to take over PR duties.

  • renoir

    injury chance, returns cause more injuries then any other plays…

  • Matthew Marczi

    Remember when Troy Polamalu got his knee bent at the start of the 2009 season on a special-teams play?

  • Matthew Marczi

    His chances of making the roster would seem to me pretty slim this year–UNLESS he manages to win the punt return job. Then I could see the WR position breaking down like this: Brown, Bryant, Smith-Schuster, Rogers, Coates/DHB, Ayers.

  • John Phillips

    Agreed, it’s his only real shot to make the roster.

  • LucasY59

    I think it will be Rogers that gets a chance to return most of the routine punts (Sutton being a rookie and a defensive player make it so its unlikely he gets a shot as a PR) if its a situation where they want the experienced player back there or are needing a big play they should (and will) use AB

  • LucasY59

    It is kinda like LS replacements for Warren (comes up every yr, but every yr it stays the same)

  • LucasY59

    fat alge crumpler just sat on it if I remember correctly, I was pissed

  • SkoolHouseRoxx

    Kniles Davis is more of a kick returner, correct? I just like Sutton’s Privado. It may be unlikely, but I hope Tomlin really considers it. I’m sure Sutton will be catching in some of those “how many can you hold on to,” punt challenges this training camp.

  • SkoolHouseRoxx

    AB definitely played it safe last yr.

  • Scunge

    Yeah, he has been picking his spots more and more over the last 3 years. The number of returns have dropped from 30 to 22 to 15, so he is on pace to have what, 8 this year? Also, I think when a player starts to get cautious as a return man I think an injury is more likely to happen, it is a position where you have to be aggressive out there.

    Between Rogers, Sutton and maybe even Ayers, I think it is time to take Brown off of punts.

  • Douglas Andrews

    Interested in seeing Cam Sutton return some punts. I know it’s pretty unlikely he gets a real shot given Coach T’s history with defensive returners but Cam’s got the PR background and he’s a good returner. If not Sutton maybe Eli takes that over. I don’t remember any egregious mistakes from him last year and Eli might have a reduced role as the season progresses.

  • falconsaftey43

    What’s your point? Guys can get hurt on any given play, unless there is data saying a type of play is more dangerous, there isnt a reason to take a player off the field to “protect” them, especially when it’s a chance to put the ball in the hands of your best playmaker. I dont remeber the specific play Troy got hurt on, but I do remember him making several game changing FG/PAT blocks, do you want to give up that opportunity?

    That said, I want AB off PR because he is so cautios back there now he isnt making plays anymore.

  • Matthew Marczi

    If guys can get hurt on any play, then maybe they shouldn’t be playing extraneous snaps. I don’t recall him ever actually successfully blocking a kick.

  • falconsaftey43

    According to advancedfootballanalytics run plays had a 1.6% injury rate, pass 1.5%, punt 1.3%, kickoff 2.0%

  • LucasY59

    yep I dont think K.Davis is doing any punt returning, so I do think Sutton will probably get a look as a PR, but will be the 3rd string (only in emergency type)

    AB is #1, Rogers is most likely #2 and like I already said Sutton is #3, I dont think there are any other (PR capable) guys on the roster (…Ayers, but I dont think he makes the 53) so Sutton gets to be #3 kinda by default

  • Steel Realist PAul

    I wish Tomlin would consider using defensive players for this role. Strange coaching tick, if you ask me. What would have happened if Dieon’s coach felt that way?!

  • Garrett Hunt

    He never has to be on the field. So you are saying you never want him to be on the field?