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By Scott Brown
Sunday, Aug. 24, 2008

Mike Tomlin has been reluctant to use Santonio Holmes as a punt returner because the Steelers coach said he wants the third-year pro to concentrate on playing wide receiver.

Holmes, however, said returning punts would actually enhance his play at wide receiver and not compromise what he can do as one of the top deep threats in the NFL.

"It's just a football player's thing that you can't really describe," Holmes said, "but it's one of those things that the more times you touch the ball, the earlier you get involved, the more focused you are throughout the whole game."

Holmes, who got a turn returning punts Saturday night against the Vikings, can make a strong case can as to why he should be involved in an area of special teams where the Steelers struggled last season.

Holmes averaged 10.2 yards per return his rookie season -- the 6.1 yards the Steelers averaged on punt returns in 2007 ranked near the bottom of the NFL -- and he is a threat to break a big play any time he touches the football.

Perhaps the most compelling argument that can be made for Holmes returning punts is this: he is hardly struggling at wide receiver.

The former first-round pick led the NFL in yards per catch (18.1) last season, and in the Steelers' first two preseason games Holmes made the most of the limited time he spent on the field.

He caught a 40-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the Steelers' 24-21 loss to the Bills on Aug. 14. A week earlier, Holmes and Roethlisberger showed just how in sync they have been during the preseason.

Both players read blitz on a play early in the Steelers' 16-10 win over the visiting Eagles and Holmes cut short his route. Roethlisberger hit the 5-11, 192-pounder in the flat and Holmes made perennial Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins miss badly on the way to a 19-yard touchdown.

"He understands what I'm looking for and we put a lot of work in this offseason, just him and I, on the field," Roethlisberger said of the connection he and Holmes have established. "Just the smallest things. I even asked him 'If you're wide open where do you want the ball• Do you want it up around your shoulder• Do you want it in your stomach?' "

Holmes, who caught 52 passes for 945 yards and eight touchdowns last season, rarely has a problem getting open.

A big reason for that is his route-running ability, which is something that left rookie wide receiver Limas Sweed in awe when he first started practicing with the Steelers.

"I didn't understand coming from college how you can make four (different) routes look the same for about 10 to 12 yards or 10 to 15 yards," Sweed said. "That's what he's able to do and stay smooth and fluid. It's something I'm working on right now."

Sweed calls Holmes a "master of disguise," and the latter has made it clear he would like to be a a master of punt returns, as well.

He starred in that aspect of the game at Ohio State, and his rookie season included a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown against Carolina.

Tomlin will ultimately make the call as to whether Holmes gets the opportunity to return punts. One argument he presumably can't make against is that Holmes has not developed enough as a wide receiver to taken on additional responsibilities.

"When he told me he needs me back there to make a play for the team I told him I'd jump back there any time," Holmes said. "It's just a different phase of the game that allows me to be more of a football player, getting the opportunity to make plays and doing as much as I can for the team."

    Best of the rest

    Santonio Holmes is one of a number of options the Steelers have as far as punt returners. Here are the others:

  • Mewelde Moore, RB. Former Vikings player has a career punt return average of 10.2 yards, and Steelers signed Moore during the offseason to bolster their kick return game.
  • Eddie Drummond, WR. Pittsburgh native made the Pro Bowl as a return man in 2004 and has four career punt returns for touchdowns. Penn State product said he is healthy after an injury-plagued season in 2007 with the Chiefs.
  • Willie Reid, WR. 2006 third-round pick has been a disappointment as a return man and is battling to make the 53-man roster.

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