PITTSBURGH — After an impressive first game at kick returner, the Steelers will be without Anthony McFarland, who is dealing with a knee injury. As a result, the team needs to pivot to find someone to return kicks. It could end up being Calvin Austin III or Desmond King, but a familiar name could be back there — wide receiver Gunner Olszewski.
Olszewski returned kicks for the Steelers at times last year. That is something that the Steelers have seen him take in stride; with over 70 returns in his career, he has a proven resume that Pittsburgh can draw upon. However, only three returns last year raised those questions for the team about their confidence level in him. But the team does have Olszewski listed as the backup kick returner, making him the likely player to fill in on those duties.
“Yeah, I always work on that every week,” Olszewski said of the kick-return duties. “I make sure I practice like I’ll be there, so they have me doing that all the time.”
Take it from Olszewski; he has prepared for these duties each week, which makes sense. When the team signed him last year, he became the team’s de facto returner. Earning an All-Pro honor with the New England Patriots in 2020, he has proven adept as a return man, but Steven Sims unseated him last year.
This year, the team looked for more juice in that part of the special teams game while Olszewski shined in training camp as a slot receiver, earning him the roster spot he has now. Without Diontae Johnson, Olszewski was one of the players named by Mike Tomlin early in the week as someone who could have his role on offense increased. The other receivers in the depth group are Miles Boykin and Dez Fitzpatrick. Austin steps in as a starter in Johnson’s spot in the offense.
Over his career, Olszewski has proven a better punt returner than kick returner, racking up only 22.6 yards per kick return, with 39 of those in the NFL. Still, he is the safe option for the Steelers to lean on, and in the new age of kick returns, it can be as simple as calling a fair catch and starting at the 25-yard line.