Antonio Brown finished the 2013 season in the top four in both punt return yards and yards per return with one taken back for a touchdown. Unfortunately, the Steelers as a team didn’t have that same success on kick returns. Felix Jones, the Steelers top kick returner, finished 19th in both yards and yards per return in the NFL. Every once in a while the team put Emmanuel Sanders back for a return and he definitely did a better job with 26.8 yards per return compared to 22.2 for Jones. Though that was a much smaller sample size, 10 returns to Jones’ 23, you would have to think Sanders could have done a better job as the full time return man.
There are only two problems with that thinking going forward though.
One, the Steelers obviously didn’t believe that Sanders could handle being the number two receiver and the team’s top return man. That same thought was put out there with Antonio Brown when he became the number one receiver. There were those who thought punt returning would take away his focus and also invite more opportunities for Brown to get hurt. Brown then went out and had a very good season as I detailed at the start of this article. With the success Sanders flashed last season I never understood why the team didn’t put him back there more.
The second problem is probably the biggest one on why the Steelers won’t use Sanders as a return guy. Sanders is going to be a free agent this offseason and the chances he actually comes back to the Steelers are extremely slim. It would be kind of difficult for the Steelers to have Sanders returning kicks when they don’t even employ him anymore.
Felix Jones is also set to be a free agent, which then leaves LaRod Stephens-Howling as the only really experienced return man on the roster. Then you realize that Stephens-Howling is coming off a knee injury that forced him to miss all but the opening game of the 2013 season. Oh by the way, he is a free agent this offseason as well.
So who’s going to be returning kicks in 2014?
If you go down the list from guys who returned kicks this past season we get to Jonathan Dwyer who returned a grand total of four kicks for 90 yards. Maybe Markus Wheaton will be given a shot if he can stay healthy next season. Or maybe 2013 sixth round pick Justin Brown will get a chance to earn a roster spot by returning kicks.
The Steelers need to find a more competent return man in 2014 to give the offense better field position during games. It would be nice if Ben Roethlisberger didn’t have to go the full 80 yards or even more on almost every drive. Maybe the defense could just stop giving up as many touchdowns too so that we just don’t receive as many kicks.
But hey, one problem at a time.
Statistics from ESPN.com.