Steelers Can’t Afford To Experiment On Kickoffs Vs Patriots

Well, it was fun…until it wasn’t…while it lasted, but I can’t help but assume that starting in tomorrow’s practice, wide receiver Martavis Bryant is not going to be set up as the primary kick returner leading up to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ pivotal game against the New England Patriots, which may decide who hosts the AFC Championship game.

While I have talked over the course of the past two weeks in my special teams reports that Bryant clearly flashes the potential for delivering a big play, I have also warned that he doesn’t have much of a plan of attack when a lane is not presented to him.

Sunday night’s game in particular showed how difficult of a time he can have to maximize a return unless he has a hole to hit, which resulted in him leaving a lot of yardage out on the field that the offense could have used.

Bryant was able to return five kickoffs from the Ravens, but he totaled just 55 yards on them for an 11-yard average, with the longest individual return only going for 21 yards. And one of those returns really flirted with disaster.

It should be granted that the Baltimore Ravens are among the best teams in the league with respect to special teams. Head Coach John Harbaugh has a serious background in that area of the game, and he has surrounded himself with the coaches and players that allow him to excel. Justin Tucker and Sam Koch are Pro Bowl specialists.

With that said, you simply cannot do some of the things that Bryant did on kick returns. Indecisiveness is a fatal flaw for a returner, a role that requires quick thinking and acting, and we saw that on display during a number of Bryant’s returns.

The one following the Ravens’ first touchdown in the second quarter is a perfect example. Fielding the ball at the three, Bryant     immediately paused to assay the field before looking to cut sharply to the right, seeing daylight to that end. Once he found that he could not reach the edge, he essentially gave himself up, tackled at the 12-yard line.

He also returned at kick out of the end zone to the 18-yard line, but the most damning was the third-quarter boot that he failed to field with urgency, allowing it to bounce to him and trusting that it would do so on a predictable manner. This kick nearly resulted in a safety.

You can be sure that the Patriots are quite aware of how Bryant returned kicks over the course of the past three weeks and would look to take advantage of his inexperienced decision-making in that area, as they tried to do to the Dolphins last night.

JuJu Smith-Schuster has not been without fault, either, of course. He was involved in the free kick that the Chiefs recovered earlier this year, and he has not done anything particularly special on returns. But consistent starting field position between the 20 and 25 right now feels a bit like heaven.

About the Author

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

    Put AB back there on kick returns and we are guaranteed to get touchbacks on all kickoffs. He wouldn’t even need to return anything.

  • Vic

    Does anyone feel that martavis is purposely not putting any effort? Almost feels as he trying to sabotage the teams success.

  • steelburg

    Count me as a fan of keeping Bryant back there. Him being back there does 2 things 1 it gives us the best threat to actually get a TD returned IMO. And the second thing it does is it gives Bryant another opportunity outside of the offense to get a big play and boost his confidence. So I hope they keep him back there. The pats like to kick the ball just short of the end zone and one of the worst things I think you can do is kick the ball in a manner that allows for the return to get a running start.

  • dany

    I like your thinking. Even if he hasnt done it in a while, it’s still AB, you don’t want him with the ball in his hands. If the kick is short, have the upback get it to avoid damage on ab. Let him a few safe ones for good measure

  • Ray Istenes

    Not at all. He has been blocking well down field. With AB getting 200yds and TE’s 150 and Bell his there is not much to go around. However, there will be a week when he comes up huge for us. I am still glad we have him.

  • Kevin artis

    JuJu can do that. He’s sure handed and a smart kid. All we need is someone to catch it.
    But they might kick is short to test his decision making.

  • 20Stoney

    I’d be more of a fan of keeping him there if he showed a little more urgency and want to. I’m getting that “I don’t care” vibe from him. He seems like he’s still in a funk from whatever his perceived slights by the team were.

  • ThePointe

    This is my point obviously. If AB is back there no one will ever kick it short.

  • SkoolHouseRoxx

    He’s better at catching it while taking off. He is kinda bad a judging it in general. I’d rather be safe than sorry.

  • Thomas

    I think decisiveness can be gained with experience, he has the physical tools, shoot for the upside 🙂

  • steelburg

    That doesn’t matter to me at all. He had the same attitude against the Bengals and had it not been for a bogus holding call that would have been a TD. He gives us the best chance to get a returned TD from that unit outside of AB of course. So I think they should keep him back there.

  • Conserv_58

    If anything he’s sabotaging his own future. If he’s been anything so far this season he’s been very inconsistent which translates to him being unreliable.

    That look of frustration and disappointment on Ben’s face right after he threw a deep pass in the left corner of the end zone, only to see Martavis turn in the opposite direction, (because he lost track of the ball) and then see the ball hit the turf, spoke volumes about why Martavis can’t be relied upon to make the plays he’s expected to make. There have been several occasions where Ben threw deep to Martavis on a go route only to see the ball bounce off of his hands or sail through them when he’s in tight coverage. The same can be said of his kick return abilities. For whatever reason, Martavis has Sammy Coates Syndrome. He has a problem focusing and concentrating on making contested catches.

  • Doug Andrews

    I still think MB gives us the best chance for a big play opportunity. Let’s not forget had it not been for a questionable JJ Wilcox hold MB coasted to a 96 yard kickoff return for a TD. I give the Ravens credit they have a superb special teams hands down they exploited a weakness. The other side of the coin is MB’s doing something now he hasn’t done much in the NFL. 14 career kickoffs in college and 9 kickoffs in the NFL means he’s relatively inexperienced. Juju and Toussaint are reliable catching the football but that’s it no threat to take one to the house. A special teams TD in any game is huge could be a difference maker in the playoffs.

  • PaeperCup

    He just needs better training. Bryant’s effectiveness straightline speed. This sideline to sideline stuff is not going to cut it.

    Jon Bois recently made a video on youtube for his Chart Party series on talking about kickoff returns. One thing he mentioned was that although Punt returns for TDs were filled with lots of flare, jukes, missed tackles, cross field antics, Kickoff return TDs on the other hand were all straight lines. He actually argued that it was boring.

    But that’s what Bryant needs to do. Catch the ball first, but then just book it in a straight line.

    We shouldn’t discount the Ravens Special Teams though, they as good as they get.

  • Rich Stafford

    If Tomlin puts a RB back there like he has a tendency to do the steelers won’t start a drive outside the 15 yard line. BB will pop up kickoff to the 5 every time. Someone with speed has to be back deep. I’ll take Bryant over and RB on the roster.

  • francesco

    What was important was to secure the ball after it bounced in front and not get tackled in the end zone. MB did that quite nicely getting to the 9 yard line. Why not blame the non existant tackling upfront? No that would be blaming the coaches and we can’t have that.