Pittsburgh Steelers: A Search For a Few Good Return Men
Yes, they still kept true to form choosing the best player possible, no doubt, but they also addressed a pressing need—getting youth in the defensive line.
But here is another surprise: They drafted a couple of return guys.
Statistically, the Steelers finished 2008 with the AFC's No. 1 special teams in kick return defense, and No. 4 in punt defense, based on yards per return.
That's a huge difference from 2007 where they ranked Nos. 16 and 14 respectively in those categories.
However, in the return game, the Steelers were miserably sitting in the bottom of the pile heap.
Kick-off return average 19.1; punt return 6.2.
For those keeping score at home, that's No. 29 in the league on kick returns, and No. 31 on punts.
In 2008, the 4-12 Cleveland Browns averaged 22.6 kick-off return and 8.4 punt return, topping the Steelers by 3.5 and 2.2 yards per try in those categories respectively.
Many attempts have been made in the past to find the appropriate return guys such as WR Antwaan Randle El, CB Ricardo Colclough, WR Willie Reid, WR Allen Rossum, RB Najeh Davenport, and RB Mewelde Moore.
In 2005, the Steelers averaged 10.2 yards per return, third in the league, thanks largely to Randle El.
In 2004, with Randle El, the team averaged 8.3. In 2003, again with Randle El, the average was 12.2.
The Steelers could stand to improve in the punt and kick-off return game.
Hopefully the solution is in one or both of the new rookies selected in this April's draft.
It is for that reason the Steelers drafted a couple of return guys with the No. 84 and No. 168 picks.
In the third round, the Steelers selected WR Mike Wallace, senior at University of Mississippi.
Wallace, 6'1" and 199 pounds, looks to be able to fill a need at both wide receiver and the long-sought kick returner the Steelers have not had in a long time.
The Steelers have plans for Wallace to possibly contribute early, both as a receiver and in kickoff return.
At Ole Miss, he had established himself as an accomplished wide receiver and kick returner, holding records for all-purpose yards (1,737) and kickoff return yards (861).
He holds the Ole Miss record for single-game, season, and career kickoff return yards, and ranks second all-time.
He is noted for his outstanding speed, and described as an excellent athlete with a dangerous vertical threat, solid ball skills, and a terrific return man.
For four years (three as a starter), Wallace returned 60 kickoffs for 1,392 yards, and two TDs.
His longest run-back was 98 yards. His average return was 23.2.
Wallace showed his speed at the NFL Combine, turning in the second-fastest 40 time among receivers: 4.33..
The 168th pick of the draft went to CB Joe Burnett, graduate of University of Central Florida.
At 5-11, 185 pounds, Burnett already has a nickname: “Smokin' Joe."
The Steelers envision Burnett as a nickel back who will use his athletic skills to react to the ball and make interceptions.
On special teams, Burnett returned 26 punts for 378 yards, returned 26 kickoffs for 745 yards and two touchdowns and also blocked one kick.
He was named the Conference USA Special Teams Player of the Week after UCF's nationally-televised overtime loss to USF (Sept. 6) in which he racked up 206 return yards, including a 91-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and blocked a USF field goal.
Its possible that neither of these rookies selected will be a Dante Hall, Devon Hester, or Josh Cribbs, but if one of these guys could return the ball beyond the 20-yard line, the Steelers would be the better for it.
This offseason, the Steelers made an effort to re-sign most of the playmakers who made up that No. 1 ranked special team defense.
Last year’s unit permitted just one return as long as 44 yards over the 2008 regular season.
They pared almost four full yards off the opposition's average starting position after kickoffs, from the 30 to 26.4.
In addition, the coverage groups were consistent in allowing 19.3 yards per kickoff return and 6.2 yards per punt return without surrendering a touchdown in 2008.
What was missing was a good return game.
Special teams are just that: special. It's hard to overstate their importance.
NFL teams should not and cannot neglect special teams, because they can and often do make the difference in outcomes.
The team with the better special teams play has a huge advantage.
Good special teams can keep a team in a game against an otherwise superior team, or make a superior team even better.
A dominant squad both offensively and defensively in special teams could keep the other team in the hole as far as field position goes.
With the improvement on special teams’ defense, it was imperative that the Steelers work on the return game.
The selection of these two return guys, could lead to No. 1 overall for special teams in 2009.
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