Devil’s Advocate: Booting Brown From 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: Will THIS actually be the year that somebody other than Antonio Brown becomes the Steelers’ primary punt returner?

There are in my opinion two primary arguments to make for the affirmative and negative sides of this argument, so I’m going to lay them out in some semblance of an order. Perhaps in the future I’ll continue to use this format. Feel free to let me know if you prefer it this way in the comments.

Affirmative: Antonio Brown has the only proven track record of returning punts on the roster.

Quite simply, Brown is the only known commodity in the competition to return punts at the NFL level, as he has done it for a long time now, and he has the touchdowns—and celebrations of said touchdowns—to prove it.

Negative: Antonio Brown’s return numbers have declined, related to a more conservative approach.

It’s true that Brown was one of the great punt returners in the game as recently as two years ago, but he has averaged under 10 yards per return the past two years, and he calls for an extreme number of fair catches. A less conservative returner could yield better results.

Affirmative: Antonio Brown wants to retain his punt return duties.

The argument might simply come down to this. Your star player wants to participate in the return game. So you let him do it. He is not the only prominent player to do so. Patrick Peterson is just one example.

Negative: The Steelers have more legitimate options than in recent years.

Remember, the Steelers already dabbled early last season with giving Eli Rogers punt returns. As his head spins less, he could potentially handle that—especially if his role on offense is reduced. They drafted Demarcus Ayers for his punt return abilities and he can win a roster spot taking the job from Brown. Rookie Cameron Sutton is also said to have not only fielded punts during the spring, but looked good doing it.

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.

  • falconsaftey43

    Time for someone else. Brown is too conservative. You can still use Brown situationally until you trust the new guy (close to end zone, need a big play). Sutton, Ayers, Rogers should all be given a chance to win that job.

    I have no problem with star players returning punts as it is not very dangerous. Statistically (I’ll try to dig up the source were I read this) it is the safest play in football (kickoff, run, pass , punt in that order). Now, that’s based on all players, not just the returner, but the point remains, it is not an overly risky play.

  • RickM

    I think AB has largely taken to protecting himself on punt returns, which is a good strategy given his elite receiving skills. I’d go elsewhere for our #1 punt returner.

  • Jaybird

    I’m sure we are going to hear a lot of ” give Demarcus, Eli, or Sutton a shot- AB calls for too many fair catches”. And that is true and a fair point. But I wonder how quickly we will all being saying ” put AB back in there, at least he can catch” after the first time one of the other guys fumbles. I think it was Wheaton a few years ago who bobbled and fumbled just about every punt when AB was out. That was a nightmare.

  • falconsaftey43

    It was brutal watching Wheaton back there. Part of why they need to develop someone else to do it, when AB got hurt they had no backup. Wheaton had never even done it in college. Fielding a punt is difficult and not something most can do without having practiced it a lot.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    Punt returns have the potential to reverse the field of play – it is a big opportunity. If AB is the best punt returner then he should return punts.

  • Big White

    Cut it out Marczi.

  • Ace

    Hard to say just put him out there when they need a smart play or a big play. I mean, it’s almost always one or the other right? With how far these punters kick…If you put him out there with the other team pinned back in their own end, you want him to return it and have a decent return. Punter will be booming it to flip field position. But if the other team is trying to pin the Steelers back into their own end zone, you want him out there for the fair catch and the smarts to know when to let it bounce into the end zone or not. That’s when I would want him fielding punts, so when else can you send out a different guy? Maybe when they are up 21 in the fourth quarter?

  • falconsaftey43

    IF they don’t trust the new guy, I’d only use Brown when Fielding close to the end zone, or late in game and behind and they need a big play (but even this only if the new guy isn’t a big threat, which if that’s the case, just have AB do it always.) Personally, if someone looks good in preseason, I’m letting them just have the job, only going back to AB if they prove incapable.

    This is one of the coaching issues I have with Tomlin. Seems perfectly content just to cleanly field the punt. Doesn’t trust unproven guy, so will never develop a new PR unless injury forces it. But he’ll just throw a washed up Jacoby Jones out there.

  • Ace

    Tomlin-Doesn’t Live in his Fears.
    Tomlin-Doesn’t want an unproven punt returner for fear they may fumble.

    He needs to take some risk somewhere along the line here. Problem is, he wants a receiver returning punts. But it should be one that can contribute to the offense and is going to make the team based on other attributes and not solely on his PR ability. So AB, MB, SC, ER, JuJu, DHB is who I have making the team. Maybe Hunter over DHB but either way, neither of them return punts. The only one of them that I think can return punts is AB and Eli. We know what AB can do and Eli had mild success in College. So who do you put back there as a returner out of the guys who are legit to make the team? Gotta be Eli. If he puts Ayers as a punt returner in preseason and lets say Ayers rips off some long returns and maybe a TD. Then Tomlin is kind of screwed and has to keep Ayers. Who’s spot is he taking? One of the reasons I had issue drafting him in the first place. Seems like the best option is to give the job to Eli early on and let him just work his way through it.

  • D.j. Hoy

    As much as I like him, I don’t see how Ayers makes the team if he isn’t the primary punt returner.
    As for AB being off punt return, as long as the person replacing him is a good option (see Ayers/Sutton) then I’m ok with it.
    While AB isn’t the best punt returner in the league, he is IMO the best receiver. I would try and prolong his career as much as possible, and that’s includes taking him off returns and using him where he is most useful – as a receiver.

  • D.j. Hoy

    I agree. Some of the better returns are when the gunners are close and lunge, but miss because of the returner making a quick move. If Antonio did that, I’d make bathroom in my pants.

  • Milliken Steeler

    Not to mention, you put Wheaton in the game for the first time ever to Field Punts? He fielded kickoffs not punts. I was at that game and the wind in Denver was gusting badly. I’m surprised he didn’t whiff altogether and the ball completely miss him. lol It was bad.

  • RickM


  • dany

    If the steelers are down in in the 4th quarter, put him in. This offense should be good enough to prevent him having to play ST

  • Matthew Marczi

    To be fair, Wheaton had no idea what he was doing and never should have been given the job in that situation. The competition this year actually has experience returning punts (and Rogers even returned some punts last season).

  • Matthew Marczi


  • Matt Manzo

    I’m all for getting AB outta there. But whoever the next guy is, he better get lots of chances in camp and preseason! There needs to be some sort of back up plan for AB. Someone getting developed for PR.
    As it stands right now, AB is the best and the rest are a fumble waiting to happen.

  • Kevin Artis

    I think Brown became more valuable as a WR he started being more careful with his returns.
    Returning punts is also a matter of trust. Everyone remembers the “jacoby jones experiment”.
    We need to give the other WR or CB all the snaps at returning punts during preseason and training camp so they can establish Tomlin’s trust.

  • StolenUpVotes


  • Alan Tman

    Good article, and it’s time.

  • Alan Tman

    How many 29 year old punt returners you know that start?

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    Rod Woodson was one.

  • Alan Tman

    That’s not many, and he wasn’t making 18 million dollars a year either. It seems like it would make more sense to put him back there when you have to like Santonio did.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    Ed Reed did too when he was 29. Rod Woodson is a Hall of Fame player who was at his peak; Reed a 5 time all-pro.

    Maybe Antonio Brown should not do any crossing routes; those are where a lot of receivers get clocked.

  • Alan Tman

    2 out 2,000 punt returners. Makes sense to me. Lol