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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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