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Steelers Put Kick Return Woes under the Microscope

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PITTSBURGH — In the aftermath of Sunday’s 26-23 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin came under fire for his decision to kickoff at the beginning of the overtime period.

The decision is a rare one amongst NFL head coaches and is usually reserved for when the wind is a significant factor.

Sunday, it wasn’t. 

The significant factor in Tomlin’s mind was the lack of success of his kickoff return unit of moving the ball out from the shadow of its own goalposts. According to Tomlin, part of that is the rare talent of Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker. But it also represented a dissatisfaction in his own unit.

“Both,” he said during his Monday press conference. “We didn’t block well enough. But we also have to acknowledge things don’t happen in a vacuum. Tucker was awesome in that football game, not that we are surprised by that.”

The Steelers will work to improve a unit that has underwhelmed statistically throughout the season. Primary kickoff returner Ryan Switzer has averaged 18 yards on four returns this season, the fourth-lowest average in the league amongst players with four or more returns. Johnny Holton hasn’t fared much better, averaging 18.33 yards on three returns.

Tomlin said that they have plenty of areas that the unit can be improved upon.

“Positioning, eyes, rate of play, speed of play,” he said. “But we are also getting better as a staff of finding that division of labor and leaning on the strength and minimize the weaknesses of the collective of the group. We are still very much developing in all ways in that regard.”

This week could be a challenging one to make personnel changes. With the Steelers dealing with quarterback Mason Rudolph in the concussion protocol, they’ll likely have to make one roster move to add Paxton Lynch to the roster. That move could come at the expense of a special teams player.

That’s going to put an even greater onus on the team’s return men to make a couple guys miss.

“As return men, we’ve got to be better as returns and just be be better with our scheme overall.” Johnny Holton said before practice on Wednesday. “When I say scheme, I mean you’ve got to have the proper technique, do what we’re coached to do to better.”

He said that when it comes to kickoff returns, it really only takes one long to make a big difference. One 100-yard return can lift a returner’s average for an entire season, and maybe even more impactfully, can scare kickers away from using the kind of tactics that Tucker had success with on Sunday.

“It ain’t hard to improve,” Holton said. “If we go out there and run a kick return back, everybody will be like ‘Our kick returns are good.’

“If you have a big splash play on kick return, the kickers will start kicking it out of the end zone. But if they feel like they’ve got a good enough chance to hold you in the 25, they’ll kick it at the 1-yard line and make you return it.”

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Should Steelers Sign Zach Banner to be Starter in 2021?

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Zach Banner has become a prominent member of the Steelers, but that’s not because he’s had success on the field over the past year. Banner’s success has come off the field by connecting with fans on social media and doing his part to help those in need than he has on a football field. But by no means is that Banner’s fault.

He suffered a season ending torn ACL in Week 1 of the 2020 season. This injury was especially devastating for the USC product because it occurred on the heels of Banner winning the starting right tackle position following a tough training camp battle with Chukwuma Okorafor.

Due to Banner’s injury, it was Okorafor who ended up starting 16 games, including the postseason. While Banner kept in good spirits and became his team’s loudest cheerleader on Twitter during games, it was clear he wanted to be on the field and contributing.

Earning a starting spot as a member of the Steelers offensive line was a major career achievement for Banner, but it was one he didn’t get to enjoy. With Banner expected to be ready for a return next season, should the Steelers sign the 27-year-old with the anticipation that he could be a key piece to bolster the offensive line that was missing during the 2020 season?

Do you believe in Zach Banner? Comment below with why or why not.

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Steelers

Zach Banner Announces Self-imposed Social Media Ban Until he Signs New Deal

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Zach Banner is sending a clear message about his priorities ahead of the 2021 NFL season. Banner, who is a free agent and looking for a new deal with the Steelers, tweeted that he is going to stay off social media until he officially signs on the dotted line.

Zach Banner has become a prominent member of the Steelers, but that’s not because he’s had success on the field over the past year. Banner’s success has come off the field by connecting with fans on social media and doing his part to help those in need than he has on a football field. But by no means is that Banner’s fault. He suffered a season ending torn ACL in Week 1 of the 2020 season. This injury was especially devastating for the USC product because it occurred on the heels of Banner winning the starting right tackle position following a tough training camp battle with Chukwuma Okorafor.

Due to Banner’s injury, it was Okorafor who ended up starting 16 games, including the postseason. While Banner kept in good spirits and became his team’s loudest cheerleader on Twitter during games, it was clear he wanted to be on the field and contributing.

Earning a starting spot as a member of the Steelers offensive line was a major career achievement for Banner, but it was one he didn’t get to enjoy. Banner now hopes to return to Pittsburgh and be the missing piece the Steelers offensive line desperately needs.

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Rooney: Steelers Plan to Return to St. Vincent for 2021 Training Camp

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There is plenty that remains up in the air about the 2021 NFL offseason, but the Pittsburgh Steelers still have plans to resume one of their enduring traditions that was broken by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

The Steelers were forced to forgo their trip to the campus of St. Vincent College near Latrobe, Pennsylvania in 2020 due to the NFL’s rules regarding keeping players isolated during the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s unclear how much those restrictions will change for the NFL teams this summer, but as things stand as of today, the Steelers are still making plans to return to the Laurel Highlands for the team’s annual training camp this summer.

“As we sit here today, our plan is to have training camp in Latrobe,” team president Art Rooney II said to Steelers.com on Friday. “We still have a ways to go to get there, but I think there’s a pretty good chance that’s going to be able to happen. We’re still hopeful we’re going to have some form of offseason program, and it’s probably not going to start on time but I think it’s important particularly for the young players that we get back to having an offseason program and then a full training camp and preseason games. I think we need to have that to help the young players continue to develop.”

Displaced from their usual bucolic summer home and from UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on the South Side due to capacity limitations, the Steelers spent the 2020 training camp and preseason at Heinz Field.

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