Will Pittsburgh’s prodigal son provide special teams spark?
A big question mark entering Pittsburgh Steelers training camp was their return game; after all, the Steelers ranked 30th in punt returns last season (6.1 yards per) and 21st in kickoff runbacks (24.6 yards). They're now a week into camp, and it appears head coach Mike Tomlin is still a little perplexed at the situation. Despite having five players working on returns at camp, the Steelers went out and signed former Pro Bowl returner Eddie Drummond. The Pittsburgh native and Penn State alumnus is hoping his homecoming will give the Steelers the special teams spark that the team has needed for a while.
Drummond has 390 returns in his six NFL seasons, racking up more than 7,000 yards and six touchdowns. His best season was in 2004 with Detroit, for which he averaged 26.6 yards per kickoff return and 13.2 yards each punt return, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. After five seasons with the Lions, Drummond spent 2007 in Kansas City, where he posted a career-low 21.2 yards per kickoff return. He blamed last season's performance on the splint he had to wear to protect his dislocated finger. Now, though, Drummond says he's completely healthy; in fact, he believes he's just starting to peak.
"As long as I stay competitive and stay progressive and don't get injured or anything like that, I'm pretty sure I'm going to be on the team, just because they already know what I can do," Drummond said after signing with the Steelers.
That's pretty confident talk for someone who wasn't on an NFL roster a week ago. Drummond brings good vision and patience to Pittsburgh's return game. He's only 28, can shift up to fifth gear when he hits the crease and can make tacklers miss. The big question is durability for Drummond, who has battled injuries throughout his career.
The Steelers have been searching for a return specialist for the last few seasons. In 2006, they drafted Florida State's Willie Reid in the third round with the hope that he would become a special teams asset. Instead, he spent his rookie season on injured reserve, then blew his chance in 2007 by having a horrible preseason. That forced Pittsburgh to trade a draft pick in September to Atlanta for veteran returner Allen Rossum, who failed to impress Tomlin in 2007 and was cut in February. A month later, Pittsburgh signed running back and returner Mewelde Moore to a three-year contract.
Tomlin says he brought in Drummond to add some competition to the position battle, but the coach must be looking for something that he's not finding yet at camp. Besides Reid and Moore, Jeremy Bloom, Travis Williams and Santonio Holmes have been working on returns. Holmes is Pittsburgh's leading receiver, and it isn't worth risking injury to make him the starting returner. Moore is also fighting to become the team's third-down running back and isn't practicing every day in the return game. Reid could be facing his last chance with the Steelers and his first two seasons may already be two strikes against him. Former Eagle Bloom and undrafted rookie Williams are both untested at the pro level.
Drummond could clean up the entire mess if he's truly back to his Pro Bowl ways. He's looking for a new beginning with his hometown team, saying he'd like to end his career in Pittsburgh. The Steelers would welcome Drummond's return to the special teams spotlight, but he has five guys to go through if he wants to make it happen. Pay close attention at who's getting the returns this Friday at the Steelers' first preseason game against Philadelphia.