Brown: Risky returns
Steelers fans won't be happy with this one: Coach Bill Cowher said Thursday he is "leaning" toward using Santonio Holmes on kickoff and punt returns against the New Orleans Saints.
To some, that might seem akin to sending the Saints' coaches a copy of the Steelers' playbook. That's how pronounced Holmes' struggles on special teams have been.
Last week against the Broncos he had two fumbles, one of which led to a Denver touchdown, and he appeared flustered enough that Cowher didn't have Holmes return kickoffs or punts after the first quarter.
That Cowher is seriously considering using Holmes as a returner a week later shows what kind of faith he has in the rookie.
Cowher is not the only one.
"Yes, we've got to be held accountable (for turnovers), and he knows that," veteran wide receiver Hines Ward said. "At the same time, I'm not going to let him put his head down and have him think he can't play this game."
Holmes is second on the team in catches (22) and third in receiving yards (323). His progress as a wide receiver has been overshadowed by the recurring problem that has fans all but covering their eyes when he is returning a kickoff or a punt.
His fumbles against the Broncos prompted a shower of boos at Heinz Field and left Cowher little choice but to replace Holmes with Cedric Wilson and Ike Taylor on punt and kickoff returns, respectively.
Holmes said the fumbles - and the fans' reaction -- didn't shake his confidence, which is why he would welcome returning kickoff and punts in Sunday's 4:15 p.m. game.
"I was probably more disappointed in letting (Cowher) down because we talked about it all week in practice, ball security, getting at least 10 to 15 yards and then thinking about scoring," Holmes said. "I secured the ball all week in practice, and things just happened on the field."
Holmes' struggles have come in the part of the game where his transition to the NFL figured to be the easiest, since he was a standout returner at Ohio State.
To put it politely, Holmes isn't making anyone forget about the departed Antwaan Randle El.
Cowher said Holmes is still getting acclimated to the speed of the game and the harder hits at this level.
"He has to do a better job of securing the football," Cowher said, "but in terms of being a receiver, in terms of picking up this offense, I think he's gotten better and he'll continue to get better. I believe Santonio Holmes is going to be a very good football player in this league."
So do his teammates.
"You know, I had a little talk with Santonio, and I think he's going to be OK," third-year quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "He's really learning, and he's making fewer mistakes on offense. He can be a weapon for us. We'll continue to use him because he is a good player."
Asked to evaluate his play at the halfway point of his first NFL season, Holmes said, "I think I'll leave that up to the fans and the coaches. They're the ones that want me on the field or not. The progress I've been making so far, I'm pretty sure they're satisfied with it."
Holmes' hiccupsHere is a look at Santonio Holmes' miscues as a returner:
vs. Kansas City -- Holmes fumbles twice on punt returns, but those are forgotten as the Steelers blow out the Chiefs, 45-7. His 50-yard reception on the Steelers' first possession of the game leads to a short Willie Parker touchdown run.
vs. Atlanta -- After the Falcons go three-and-out on the first possession of the game, Holmes loses a fumble on a punt return. Michael Vick throws a 22-yard touchdown pass to Alge Crumpler on the next play.
vs. Denver -- Holmes loses a fumble on a kickoff return in the first quarter, and it is returned to the Steelers' 10-yard line by Darrent Williams. The Broncos score a touchdown to take a 14-0 lead four minutes into the game.