The Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 special teams were far from spectacular. Their return game might have been the weakest link among all the special teams units. If you look at the Steelers' punt return statistics, you will see decent numbers, but those statistics are above average for the simple fact of who was returning punts, and not necessarily the return unit as a whole.
Antonio Brown is one of the best return men in the NFL, and his statistics back up those sentiments. In 2014, Brown averaged 10.6 yards per return, which ranked him 8th among NFL returners. Brown's 319 return yards ranked him 4th in the NFL among punt returners. All great numbers for an elite player in the league, but how long will the team be willing to keep putting their Pro Bowl wide receiver in a position to be injured in one of the more demanding plays still in the NFL?
Mike Tomlin addressed those questions at his yearly meeting with media at the owner's meeting a few weeks ago. His answer is one of his favorites: "I don't live in my fears I'll say that."
So Tomlin is clearly not concerned about Brown being injured in a punt return situation, but as they did with Santonio Holmes in his time with the Steelers, relieving him of his return duties will only help with the longevity of the player and his production at the wide receiver position. The Steelers selected Dri Archer in the 3rd round of the 2014 NFL Draft with the knowledge of his superior kick return skills, and the hopes of becoming the punt returner for the team.
Although Tomlin wasn't going to close the door on Archer, or someone else, possibly taking over the return roles, his response when questioned certainly is revealing.
"Why would I relieve him [Antonio Brown] of that (laughing)? No. It's a way for him to impact the game. It's something that he enjoys doing and is very, very good at doing. It's an asset to us and one that we've gone to in the past and may continue to go to in the future. We may also give some young upstarts like Dri Archer an opportunity to show what they're capable of. I'm excited about where that may go for us this year whether it's Antonio Brown, whether it's Dri Archer whether it's a player to be named later."
Archer proved in 2014 he is not capable of handling punts at this juncture of his NFL career, but Tomlin's responses lead to one answer for those curious who will be returning punts next season - expect Brown to resume his punt return duties next year.
Brown is a superior returner in the NFL, but the team has to wonder if a routine punt return could leave the team without their top wide receiver for any length of time. Nonetheless, the Steelers don't live in their fears.