Tim Benz: Steelers are dealing with many unhappy returns | TribLIVE.com
Tim Benz, Columnist

Tim Benz: Steelers are dealing with many unhappy returns

Tim Benz
Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Johnny Holton is hit by Baltimore Ravens defensive back Justin Bethel returning a kickoff in the first halfof an NFL football game, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019, in Pittsburgh.

Mike Tomlin’s hunch about his dreadful kick return team was so bleak, the Steelers’ head coach felt the need to give up possession of the football after winning the overtime coin toss last Sunday.

That was an overreaction from Tomlin. And it was the wrong move.

Yes, I say that regardless of the fact Baltimore ended up punting and regardless of what defenders of Tomlin’s choice may say.

But that’s a story for another column.

Oh, wait. It was already written? Who knew?

Irrespective of your opinion on that decision — whether your opinion is right like mine or wrong like Tomlin’s and that of all the people in my Twitter timeline — the fact remains that there is some logic as to why he made the call.

Stretched though that logic may be, I see where the coach was coming from because his kick return unit was THAT bad Sunday. And, let’s be honest, Baltimore’s kickoff team was THAT good.

Raven’s kicker Justin Tucker was kicking the ball high and dropping it within a yard or two of the goal line. The Steelers wound up on the 11-, 12- and 15-yard lines in three attempts returning the ball and absorbed three touchbacks.

“Did you see our kickoff return in this football game? Did you see their kickoff team?” Tomlin asked during Sunday’s post-game press conference in defense of his decision. “We couldn’t get back to the 15. Why would I sign up for that?”

Unfortunately for Tomlin, he has signed up for that again this Sunday night in Los Angeles against the Chargers.

“Do your job,” said special teams captain Tyler Matakevich. “When guys don’t do their jobs, that’s when things don’t work. As long as all 11 guys do their job and block who they are supposed to, we will be successful.”

Part of the job is actually returning the ball and running behind the blockers, too. That hasn’t been happening either. Ryan Switzer and Johnny Holton are only averaging 18.1 yards per return.

Switzer could maybe break a few tackles. That would help. Holton can perhaps find — and hit — holes better.

“Last week wasn’t a good week,” Holton said Wednesday. “I’ve got to do a better job setting off the blocks. We’ve just got to do what we have been coached to do. Perform better.”

With the ease of kicking touchbacks nowadays in the NFL, in-game kick returns are so rare, that it is hard to perfect the skill under game conditions.

As Switzer points out, there are lots of moving parts.

“The guys that are blocking have to deal with a lot,” Switzer said. “There are a lot of twists. A lot of rubs. There is a lot of continuity that has to go into a kickoff team. It’s been a challenge.”

Switzer added that a lot of the new rules, such as preventing wedge blocking, have hurt returns as well. Not only have they hurt raw yardage totals but they also have increased penalty flags against the return teams across the league to negate yards that had been gained.

Looking at this week’s Sunday night matchup, the Chargers allow 22.29 yards per kick return. That’s good for a mediocre 19th in football. The Steelers are 28th at 18.4 yards per return.

So maybe Los Angeles head coach Anthony Lynn gambles and tries to have rookie kicker Chase McLaughlin “pull a Tucker” and intentionally kick the ball short on a few occasions in an attempt to steal a few yards of field position.

Last week, in his first game, McLaughlin nailed all five kickoffs into the endzone for touchbacks. But Lynn says he might get tricky with McLaughlin.

“He has a very strong leg,” Lynn told me Wednesday. “But he can place it where we need him to. He can place it out the back (of the end zone), or he can place it at the two-yard line. He is pretty good at that.”

And since we are on the topic of special teams, don’t jump off your couch to grab another beer when the Steelers are punting either.

Remember the Chargers have Desmond King II returning punts. He took one to the house at Heinz Field last year.

(*Clears throat*) BLOCK IN THE BACK! (*Clears throat again*)

Even without help from the refs, King II can scoot. He ran another one back against the Denver Broncos last week.

Oh, that time the flag got picked up, I guess? That’s fun.

If you are keeping track, the Steelers aren’t great in punt return yards allowed either. They are 27th in that category at 10 yards per return. The Chargers are ninth in the NFL at 9.86 yards per return.

What does all this mean? Well, maybe the Steelers get a cheap, big return because Los Angeles gets cute and tries to mimic what the Ravens did. Perhaps the Chargers force it and kick one out of bounds.

The more likely result is that Tomlin elects to kickoff both halves just to avoid putting his return unit on the field when he doesn’t have to do so.

Oh, and look for King II to run one into the Pacific Ocean, too.

Tim Benz is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or via Twitter. All tweets could be reposted. All emails are subject to publication unless specified otherwise.

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