As we approached the 2018 campaign, many wondered if the Steelers would ever find a solution for having to send star receiver Antonio Brown out on the field when the other team is punting.
Actually, that’s probably a lie. Let’s face it, after years of searching for someone suitable to replace Brown—even Mr. Return Man, Jacoby Jones, was so bad in 2015, it was almost like he was getting revenge on Mike Tomlin for that sideline incident in Baltimore two years earlier—any current attempts at a solution seemed futile.
Even Brown, himself, seemed to be getting less spectacular at returning punts and hadn’t taken one back to the house since 2015, which just so happened to be the last time he tried to make love to the goalposts.
Not only had the Steelers’ punt return average steadily declined over the previous four seasons, it had sunk to an abysmal low of 6.9 yards per return in 2017 when Eli Rogers did the bulk of the heavy lifting.
As far a kickoff returns, after watching Danny Smith’s unit average 21.6 yards per return since 2014 (or 3.4 yards less than you’d get by just downing the kick in the end zone), I had totally written that phase of the game off—I was just glad we weren’t still living back in the late 00’s, when Tomlin would often trot out big running backs, like Najeh Davenport. (Remember that? Why didn’t he just send Max Starks out to return kicks?)
When news broke late last month that Pittsburgh had acquired return specialist Ryan Switzer in a trade with the Cowboys, I didn’t really pay much attention.
Sure, I saw the impressive highlight package from Switzer’s rookie season in Dallas last year, as well as his college days with North Carolina. However (and please forgive me if you’re the president of his fan club), I also saw the highlight package of tight end Vance McDonald last summer, right after Pittsburgh acquired him from the 49ers—and here we are a year later, and that one play where he went 70-plus on the Carolina Panthers is still the best—and only—highlight of Vance McDonald’s injury-riddled career.
Anyway, the last person I gave a darn about as the Week-1 contest against the Browns approached was Switzer and his attributes as a return specialist.
But then the game began, and Switzer started returning everything, kicks, punts, both of them. He looked decisive, as if he knew where he wanted to go the second he corralled the football. And the speed? I believe the phrase: “Shot out of a cannon” is apropos when describing what I saw on Sunday. Instead of leaving the room during a kickoff or punt, I stood there and cheered, screaming things like, “Come on, Switzer, take it to the house, baby!” It felt so foreign to me.
Switzer averaged 23 yards per kickoff return, which isn’t necessarily an impressive average. However, he did look like a threat to do something with each kick besides return it to the 21.6-yard line—certainly a step in the right direction. But since the NFL is hellbent on making sure fewer and fewer people make kickoffs exciting these days (I still can’t believe JuJu Smith-Schuster scored on one last year), punt returns are where Switzer will likely be of great value.
Switzer averaged 11.2 yards on five punt returns against Cleveland on Sunday and set up Pittsburgh’s third touchdown by returning one 20 yards to the Browns’ 39.
I realize it’s only one game, but when you couple that game with Switzer’s rookie season in-which he showed great promise as a return specialist, it might be safe to assume the Steelers have found something.
And it looks like Antonio Brown may have finally found a reason to stay off the field when the other team is punting.