Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is faced with a dual challenge each week. Figuring out which players to activate often comes down to a player's ability to produce on special teams. Even if a player won't see time with the offense or defense, some players get a helmet for their special teams ability.
As we pointed out earlier this week, the Steelers' kick return unit is among the worst in football. Spearheading that lack of production is rookie Dri Archer, who's averaging just over 16 yards per return on four tries, which is also among the lowest numbers in the NFL. Archer got in on six offensive snaps, and had two catches for eight yards on two targets.
Meanwhile, a team languishing in the red zone targeted Antonio Brown twice there and then took a sack on third down on its first trip inside the 10-yard line. Brown was targeted on the two plays prior to their red-zone trip as well.
Logic would indicate, on the sack, Brown was the intended target of the play because no one else is getting the ball.
If Archer isn't performing any better on kick returns than 98 percent of the NFL's returners, and he's averaging four yards per target, it's fair to wonder how much longer he'll be active on game days, especially when a receiver known for red-zone ability is in Duce Staley Sweats on the sideline.
Martavis Bryant struggled with consistency in training camp but showed his ability to track the ball in the air during preseason games. He may be a one-trick pony now, but what's Archer? A half-trick pony providing less return ability than LeGarrette Blount?
Players like Bryant are week-to-week decisions on whether they get a helmet, and while it's tipping the offense's hand a bit when he's on the field, it doesn't seem that's any less of a return (no pun intended) than having Archer on the field, based on how he's currently being used.
"I would say there are a lot of open discussions going on among the staff with coach Tomlin," Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley told Post Gazette reporter Ray Fittipaldo. "There are open lines of communication, and all we can [do] is report the news and say whether a guy is making progress. Having been in his seat, it’s a tough job because you only get so many helmets. Special teams, obviously, is a critical part of winning and losing on Sundays."
Perhaps Bryant can't provide any return ability and can't run the route-tree at this point in his career. But is he not capable of serving at least as a third passing option should the team choose to employ its pro-pass stance inside the 10-yard line again? Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is forcing the ball to Antonio Brown and, given he's the offense's best playmaker in the passing game, that makes sense. Bryant, though, makes more sense in the red zone, and it's in that area, not on the green field, where the Steelers are struggling.
There are challenges to that, though. Of the 20 photos available of Bryant for this article, seven of them show him dropping a pass and another nine are of him standing around in training camp. Stopping short of the easy Sweed comparison, Bryant has had some opportunities he didn't exploit. Past performance does not equate purely to future results, though.
Simply not knowing the results Bryant can produce isn't valid justification to remove Archer from active status on game day. Bryant needs to prove it in practice, despite having a significantly more difficult level of competition than Archer, the team's third running back. But getting down to the last few players who will contribute, perhaps it's time to start considering the red zone in the same way special teams are thought of; players who play strictly in this phase of the game can make significant contributions as well.