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Putting the Ryan Switzer/DeAngelo Williams beef aside, the Steelers need to improve on punt returns

DeAngelo Williams may have been out of line for calling out Ryan Switzer on Twitter, but that doesn’t mean the Steelers don’t need to improve their punt return game in 2019.

NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The other day, current Steelers receiver Ryan Switzer and former Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams engaged in a Twitter battle that centered around Switzer’s prowess at returning punts.

I don’t feel like quoting these Tweets word for word—you can find them right here, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette—but I will paraphrase the conversation below:

“Bro, how can you say that about me? We’re gym bros, bro.”

“Bro, I didn’t mean anything by it. You don’t get what I’m trying to say, bro.”

“No, I don’t, bro. Thanks for making it awkward for the next time we train together in the offseason, bro, which could be every offseason for you, since you’re really old now, bro.”

“Bro, how can you say that?”

“Hey, I’m just talking, bro.”

I may have embellished my paraphrasing of this Twitter beef, but certainly not the part where it was really awkward.

Cam Heyward even had to come in and tell Williams to chill. (By the way, this isn’t the first time a Steeler had to tell D-Will to chill on Twitter. Yeah, sure, JuJu Smith-Schuster might be the very best at social media, but DeAngelo Williams, for his ability to never, ever back down from a social media fight, is the People’s other words, he’s just like you and me.)

Anyway, Twitter beef aside, it would be nice if the Steelers found someone to actually be as dangerous at returning punts as Antonio Brown used to be before he was deemed too valuable to put in harm’s way—at least on a consistent basis.

The Steelers began phasing Brown out of the punt return game two seasons ago, when he only returned 11 for 61 yards. For the first time in his Steelers career, Brown, who averaged 9.7 yards per return and scored four touchdowns between 2010-2016, wasn’t the primary punt return man in 2017. Those duties fell to Eli Rogers, who averaged just under 7.7 yards on 19 returns.

Switzer, who the Steelers acquired in a trade right before Week 1, was the only guy who even gained a yard on punt returns in 2018, totaling 252 on 30 returns. In fairness to Switzer, his average of 8.4 yards per return was a decent improvement over what Rogers did the year before.

However, that doesn’t mean the Steelers don’t deserve a guy who can improve upon Switzer’s improvement.

Since Brown gave up being the Steelers primary punt returner, they haven’t had anyone return one for more than 27 yards (Rogers did that two seasons ago). Also, Pittsburgh hasn’t had anyone score on a punt return since Brown went 71 yards against the Colts before famously humping the goalposts in celebration way back in 2015.

That’s a long time to go between punt returns for touchdowns (to give you an example of how long, Brown is now legally allowed to hump goalposts).

That is why it’s pretty easy to get excited for the Diontae twins. I’m, of course, referring to Diontae Johnson, a third-round pick from the 2019 NFL Draft and Diontae Spencer, who signed with the Steelers this spring after spending the past four years in the CFL.

Johnson only returned 17 punts in college, but he averaged an astounding 20.2 yards per return and scored two touchdowns. Yes, it was at Toledo. Yes, it was in the MAC. But that’s still pretty darn impressive.

As for Spencer’s time in Canada, the now 27-year old averaged 11.3 yards on 191 returns and scored two touchdowns in four seasons with both the Toronto Argonauts and Ottawa Redblacks.

If I had to pick a favorite to impress the coaches in the return game this summer, it would be Spencer, given his track-record in Canada where he was an All-Star each of the past two seasons. But I also think Johnson, with his quick feet and ability to make things happen in space, has a chance to turn some heads.

This doesn’t mean you have to feel sorry for Switzer and hope he does enough in training camp to remain on the roster. Let’s be real, Switzer seemed to be developing some chemistry with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger last season, and I can’t think of a better way to remain on the roster than to gain the confidence of the franchise quarterback.

Besides, the Steelers employed a total of seven receivers in 2018—Darrius Heyward-Bey, Justin Hunter, James Washington, Brown, Rogers, Switzer and Smith-Schuster. Figuring that veteran Donte Moncrief, Smith-Schuster, Washington and the rookie Johnson are locks to make the team out of training camp, that leaves room for at least two more guys on the receiver depth chart. If Hunter managed to spend two seasons as a very unproductive member of the Steelers receiving corps, Switzer has a darn good chance of sticking around, even if Spencer makes the roster based solely on his ability to return punts (I’m guessing Rogers has more to worry about than Switzer).

Maybe Switzer makes a huge leap this season and becomes an All-Pro return man. Maybe Rogers continues to demonstrate an unyielding determination by winning back the job less than two years after suffering a torn ACL. Maybe one of the Diontae twins takes the Steelers return game to a place it hasn’t been since Brown was humping those goalposts and karate kicking Cleveland punters in the face.

But no matter who it is, someone has to find a way to weaponize the Steelers punt return game once again.