Through the first seven games of the 2012 season, it appeared as if the Steelers return units were just trying to get Chris Rainey and Antonio Brown extra cardio work. Time and time again, huge returns by Rainey and Brown were nullified by penalties. After the Bengals game two Sundays ago, coach Mike Tomlin put his special teams 'on watch' and said players would start losing their jobs if the mistakes continued.
Tomlin's threat didn't seem to help in the Week 8 victory over the Redskins, when Brown had a touchdown called back on a punt return due to yet another miscue by one of his blockers.
Would Pittsburgh's return units ever play with discipline again and either finally come through with a touchdown or at least put Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers offensive machine in prime real estate?
Sunday evening, in Pittsburgh's 24-20 comeback win over the Giants at MetLife Stadium, the answer was a resounding "Yes."
With the help of Rainey on kickoffs and Emmanuel Sanders, who was filling in for the injured Brown on punt returns, the Steelers racked up 249 yards --those very crucial "hidden yards."
Unfortunately, Pittsburgh's offense failed to respond to the optimal field position throughout much of the game.
Rainey's first big return, shortly after the Giants knotted the game at seven midway through the second quarter, put Pittsburgh in prime position to come right back and regain the lead. However, instead of that, Roethlisberger was stripped by defensive lineman Osi Umenyiora and the fumble was returned 70 yards for a touchdown by linebacker Michael Boley to give the Giants a 14-7 advantage. The play was questionable because it looked like Roethlisberger's arm was moving forward when he lost the football, but nevertheless, it was a touchdown for New York and a missed opportunity to capitalize on an impressive return by Rainey.
After having a barrage of close calls go against them in the first half, the Steelers still only trailed 14-10 when Rainey opened up the second half with a 68 yard kickoff return. How did Pittsburgh respond to some more prime real estate? The offense went three and out, including a sack on Roethlisberger at New York's 35 on third down that forced a punt instead of at least a field goal try.
Pittsburgh completed the trifecta in the fourth quarter. After the Steelers closed to within 20-17, thanks to a Mike Wallace 51 yard touchdown catch and run, the defense forced the Giants to punt. Sanders took the punt at his own 26, quickly broke into the clear and looked like he might take it to the house. Unfortunately, Giants punter Steve Weatherford did his best Roethlisberger impression and somehow managed to hem Sanders in and tackled him at the 13 yard line. Sanders may have failed to score, but his 63 yard return set the offense up with a chance to take the lead. The Steelers weren't going to blow this chance, were they? The offense managed to get inside the five yard line, but couldn't pick up a first down on third and one. Instead of taking the sure three points to tie the game, Tomlin decided to gamble and a fake to Shaun Suisham was snuffed out pretty easily.
The Steelers return units finally did their jobs very well on Sunday, but unfortunately, the offense couldn't close the deal.
Thankfully, Pittsburgh won in impressive fashion, and it's a good thing, too, because the offense not only failed to capitalize on most of those 249 "hidden" return yards, it made them disappear into thin-air.