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Steelers' return game stinks

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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008

The Steelers tried out four long-snappers Tuesday before settling on somebody named Jared Retkofsky.

If only Retkofsky could return kicks.

Somebody needs to.

A "splash" return, as coach Mike Tomlin might put it, could help the Steelers win a game in what is shaping up to be a tight divisional race.

If the Steelers lose Monday at Washington, and Cleveland beats Baltimore, the AFC North would look like this at the midway point:

Steelers -- 5-3

Ravens -- 4-4

Browns -- 4-4

Bengals -- Don't ask.

If the Steelers and Ravens win, it's still a one-game difference atop the division.

Meanwhile, the Steelers' return game doesn't just stink, it infuriates. Tell me you don't turn red and want to hit something every time 247-pound Najeh Davenport settles under a kickoff.

It would be one thing if Davenport was an emergency replacement as the primary kickoff returner.

This has been going for parts of three years.

True, Davenport once averaged 30 yards per return in Green Bay and has his strengths. As Tomlin said Tuesday, "What he does is catch the ball and get vertical."

Not for long, though. Davenport's 21.7-yard average is an improvement on his past two years but ranks 28th in a 32-team league among players who have returned at least 10 kickoffs.

It's easy to find the Steelers' return-game statistics, by the way. Just scroll to the bottom of the page.

Their kickoff-return average is 20.0, which ranks 30th in the NFL. They are one of seven teams without a return of 40 or more yards.

Their punt-return average is 4.8, tied for last in the NFL. They are one of four teams without a return of 20 or more yards.

At this point, Ricardo Colclough is beginning to look like Billy "White Shoes" Johnson.

The Steelers' issues are underscored this week, because Washington's Antwaan Randle El provides a reminder of how good things used to be in the return game.

Randle El hasn't been dynamic for the Redskins, but in his final year here, in 2005, he averaged 10.2 yards per punt return with two touchdowns and seven returns of 20-plus yards.

In 39 games since, the Steelers have one punt-return touchdown and just eight of 20-plus yards.

The wasted third-round pick of Willie Reid two years ago didn't help. Reid was supposed to be a game-breaker. He turned out to be a heart-breaker.

Something went seriously wrong with Allen Rossum, too. He was mostly awful for the Steelers last season but is averaging 26 yards on kick returns and 20.8 yards on punt returns for San Francisco.

What's going on here?

"More than anything, we haven't cracked a big one," Tomlin said. "Nothing's wrong with what we're doing schematically or how the guys are executing. ... If we continue to get comfortable with the men who are returning and continue to work with our schemes, we'll get what we're looking for.

"They'll deliver a field-position play or a splash play."

That seems more plausible on a punt return, seeing as Santonio Holmes and Mewelde Moore have big-play ability.

It's past time to change something on the kickoffs.

How about activating 5-foot-7 rookie return specialist Jayson Foster, whom the Steelers signed to their practice squad two weeks ago?

How about giving Nate Washington a shot?

Shoot, maybe it's time to put Jared Retkofsky, Jared Zabransky or Jared the Subway Guy back there.

They couldn't do any worse.

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