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Steelers Antonio Brown returning punts in 2015: Don't live in your fears

Steelers all-world receiver Antonio Brown is also an all-world football player. If he's the best option to return punts in 2015, head coach Mike Tomlin should keep sending him out there.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Antonio Brown, the Steelers very valuable star wide receiver, could potentially suffer a devastating ACL tear the next time he returns a punt.

However, he could also return one 71 yards (he did that last season) and/or for a touchdown (he's done the touchdown thing three times so far in his career). Antonio Brown is a very valuable wide receiver, but he's also an extremely valuable all-around football player, who, like Steelers legends of the past such as "Bullet" Bill Dudley, can beat you in a multitude of ways (Brown has even thrown a touchdown pass during his career).

The subject seems to come up each and every season regarding Brown and whether or not the Steelers will allow him to continue returning punts and risk an injury to perhaps their team MVP. But is there that much of a difference between returning a few punts per game and catching 10 passes and being targeted on a total of maybe 15? Brown caught 129 passes last year, and, according to, he was targeted 182 times.

That's a lot of chances to get hurt just on offense alone.

Of the 32 punts that were returned for Pittsburgh last year, 30 of them were by Brown, and don't look for that workload  to change anytime soon. On Monday, when asked about the possibility of finding a new primary punt returner, head coach Mike Tomlin had this to say:

"We go through this process every year. I'm always hunting for capable guys, but I also know Antonio is very capable. He doesn't get hit very often to be honest with you, so I don't view it as highly risky."

There has been talk that newly-acquired cornerback Brandon Boykin can return punts, and if his spectacular 90-plus yard return in the 2012 Outback Bowl as a member of the Georgia Bulldogs was any indication, he certainly has the talent for it. However, the 2012 Outback Bowl was a long time ago, and Boykin only had one punt return for seven yards during his three seasons with the Eagles.

It would be a nice luxury if the Steelers had a specialist on par with (or at least in the same galaxy as) a Devin Hester. Fact is, Dri Archer may have had a chance to become that guy during his rookie season, but he contributed very little to the return game--and especially the punt return game.

Maybe the Steelers will find a capable replacement for Brown this year, but even if they do, why wouldn't you want such a spectacular game-changer out there who could take one the distance at any moment and alter the course of a football game?

Where would Pittsburgh have been a season ago if Brown wouldn't have returned a punt 71-yards for a touchdown in the first quarter of the regular season-finale against the Bengals on December 28? In a game that wasn't settled until the waning moments, the Steelers may have found themselves traveling to Indianapolis to take on the Colts in the wildcard round, as opposed to winning their first AFC North title in four years.

Would the Steelers even have a sixth Super Bowl trophy if it not for an awesome punt return by receiver Santonio Holmes early in the divisional playoff game against San Diego in January of 2009? In 2008, while Hines Ward was the leader statistically among the wide-outs with 81 receptions and over 1,000 receiving yards, Holmes was clearly the team's most capable weapon, and it showed in the playoffs when he scored three critical touchdowns on route to a Super Bowl XLIII victory. Holmes' Super Bowl  heroics that earned him game MVP were certainly memorable, as was the 65-yard score in the second quarter of the AFC Championship game against the Ravens two weeks earlier. But neither of those plays may have happened if not for Holmes' awe-inspiring 67-yard punt return for a touchdown, when Pittsburgh was trailing 7-0 early in the divisional round, and the Chargers seemed to have all the momentum.

During the Super Bowl XLIII season, Tomlin would normally trot out reserve back Mewelde Moore if the situation called for a fair catch and Holmes when the situation called for a decent return. Maybe the head coach can employ a similar tactic this season, but when you think about it, once you call for a fair catch, there's no danger of getting hurt. Besides that, who would you trust more to secure a fair catch deep in enemy territory than an all-world receiver with world-class hands?

Fact is, great players are entrusted with making great plays--even in the return game.

Louis Lipps, drafted in 1984, was still returning punts for the Steelers as late as the 1990 season, and he was the team's top receiver for the majority of his time in Pittsburgh. Hall of Fame receiver Lynn Swann returned nine punts for the Steelers in 1977--his fourth year in the league. Hall of Fame cornerback Rod Woodson, drafted in 1987, was returning punts as late as the 1994 season--the year he was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team.

During his weekly press conference before Pittsburgh's Week 1 game against the Browns last season, Tomlin had this to say when (again) the subject of Brown getting hurt in the return game was discussed:

"I don't live in my fears. He [Brown] is a Pro Bowl caliber return man. That's what you do with those guys, you play them."

Hard to argue with that logic, and it's hard to not keep sending Antonio Brown out to return punts for the Pittsburgh Steelers.