Film Room: Punt Return Unit Passing Up Opportunities

This weeks’ special teams highlight will be a brief one, since it only really played a pretty brief role in the game. Overall, the special teams didn’t play too big of an impact in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ win over the Lions.

I think the biggest story to take out of that game regarding the special teams play is actually something that Alex Kozora already took a look at in the film room earlier this week. It’s something that I might have highlighted here had he already not done so. That is Jesse James as the right wing on the kicking unit.

But instead of that, today I want to look at the punt return unit, which is something we haven’t talked about a lot this year. Last week I did look at Coty Sensabaugh being used as the left jammer, which is something he’s done for most of the season, but here I want to look at the whole unit.

There were only three punts by the Lions in this one, since they made into the red zone so many times, had two long field goals, and also turned the ball over once, so there is a small sample size, but there is more than enough to discuss anyway.

The first punt came with four minutes to go in the first quarter. The Lions were backed up to their own 10, and Sam Martin got off a 45-yard kick that was fair caught at the Steelers’ 45 by Antonio Brown. Solid punt, and good field position. But this should have been more.

The Steelers used vice jammers on both gunners, which indicates that wanted a return. But Brown called for a fair catch before anybody was within 20 yards of him, and he had room to run when he fielded the punt. It’s a bit of an injustice to the jammers, who on this occasion were J.J. Wilcox and Joe Haden on the left (interestingly, as that is where Haden started the season, but Wilcox had hardly played jammer) with Artie Burns and Darrius Heyward-Bey on the other side.

Later in the half, in the waning seconds, the Steeler used the same vice jammers again, except with Coty Sensabaugh replacing Haden. Off a 55-yard punt, Brown, I’m hoping, thought the punt was going out of bounds, but it bounced a half a yard inbounds inside the 14, bouncing forward for two yards to the 16. Again, if he were fielding this, he would have had room for a return.

The Steelers got a break on the Lions’ third and final punt when Martin shanked it off the side of his foot. It crossed out of bounds at the Lions’ 48 for a net of 19. Fortunately so, as Haden was beaten as the right jammer. I don’t know if I’ve just been missing this, but this is the first time I’ve noticed Haden back in this role, at least for more than one snap, since the opener.

To summarize, when the Steelers used vice jammers, the protection gave the returner room to run that he passed up. When they didn’t use vice jammers, they were the beneficiary of a shanked punt.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

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

  • Michael Putman

    i noticed that on the first punt too. Almost makes me wonder if the Steelers don’t want to risk returns and hurting AB, but don’t want to risk someone else who might not field the ball as cleanly. Special teams, at least in regards to return teams, have been generally poor (in my worthless opinion) for the last decade at least.

  • Josh

    It’s time to make a change…the argument that AB is the best option ignores how he’s being coached to think safety first. Has been for a long time (mostly only chances risky returns in playoff-like situations).

  • capehouse

    I wanted to put AB on the losers list last week for his lack of returns. No sense in having him back there if he’s gonna fair catch with nobody around and let another returnable punt bounce inside the 10 or wherever it was.

  • Beaver Falls Hosiery

    I trust in AB; he will take off when the moment is right.

  • Q Fourtyfive Unowho

    I gotta give a huge shout out to the Steelers Depot crew…in the midst of a bye week I’m totally entertained..this is by far the best site for Steelers football..

  • Matthew Marczi

    Thanks man, we appreciate that.

  • Q Fourtyfive Unowho


  • Doug Andrews

    I have to agree with you on AB performing the SAFE returns. He doesn’t look to return most punts in my opinion. I wish I had his total punts/ fair catches but on the one he does fair catch it looks as though he’s got room for a return but choses not to. I know this goes against Tomlin’s MO and it probably won’t happen at the midseason point anyway but Cam Sutton was a decent PR at Tenn. I’d like for him to get a shot at it but again he’s a defensive guy and a rookie so unlikely but possible .

  • pittfan

    +1. They are doing their best to fill the void of a bye. It’s like bringing us a new puppy after we lost ours..

  • pittfan

    When you combine AB’s Boy In The Bubble PRs with having JuJu and Watson on KR, it’s as if Tomlin has just given up the idea of getting strong returns and is willing to accept touchbacks and fair catches.