View Full Version : Rookies could jazz up return game

08-16-2009, 11:01 AM
Rookies could jazz up return game
Thursday, August 13, 2009
By Gene Collier, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Because the standard NFL level of violence very nearly makes the sport too dangerous to play for anything but high stakes, the Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals will tiptoe into the weird dynamic that is the preseason tonight recognizing this basic dichotomy:

You can lose 44-0 and, if no one gets hurt, you win.

You can win 44-0 and, if an important component of your football blueprint rips, tears, cracks, breaks or mutilates an important part of himself, you lose.

Anyone remember anything from last year's preseason opener?

Right, the sound of Charlie Batch's collarbone snapping.

All other considerations being necessarily secondary, the most interesting variable on display tonight isn't hard to identify. You needn't look at the Steelers secondary to see if there are any leftover singe marks from the season-high 377 passing yards Arizona's Kurt Warner burned them with in Super Bowl 43, and you needn't gawk at the first Steelers team to win a Super Bowl without a 1,000-yard rusher.

Those things are neither there nor here at the start of 2009, but two players who could significantly change the personality of the Steelers -- and I mean historically -- should get prominent display. They are rookie return men Mike Wallace and Joe Burnett. Wallace, the third player taken in the club's April draft, holds every kickoff return record on the books at Ole Miss mostly because the 23-year-old from New Orleans is faster than a Bourbon Street hooker. Burnett is the fifth-round pick out of Central Florida, where he returned punts an average of 14.5 yards, or more than twice the Steelers' average from a year ago.

Each has a chance to deliver into the hands of Mike Tomlin a component missing from his championship team, and indeed a component missing from the Steelers through all but episodic interruptions in their entire history, despite six Super Bowl titles, specifically a consistently accomplished touchdown threat in the return game.

Tomlin's 2008 club played 19 games that counted, 76 quarters of football, and returned a punt or a kickoff for a touchdown exactly once. Santonio Holmes broke one against San Diego in the first playoff game at Heinz Field last year. A logical pragmatist by nature, Tomlin likely views this as only marginally significant in the overall special teams picture, where nothing really good happened, but nothing really bad happened either. No one returned a punt or a kick for a score against the Steelers last year. Their punt coverage unit was the best in the AFC, limiting return men to 6.2 yards per attempt. Their kickoff coverers were the best in the entire league, allowing only 19.1 yards per kickoff return.

But at the same time, the Steelers got nothing out of their return game. Their 6.0 average punt return tied for worst in the league, and their kickoff return average of 20.3 ranked 29th out of 32.

No one talks about it much, but an ineffective return game is as much a part of Steelers tradition as the Terrible Towel.

If you plow through the latest edition of the NFL record book -- and who has time other than me -- you'll find 22 punt return records and 19 kickoff return records and the Steelers hold a total of one of 'em.

In 76 seasons.

That would be under most punt return yards gained in a rookie season, 656 by Louis Lipps, 25 years ago. You'll further discover that of the top 25 active punt returners and the top 25 kickoff returns, only Mewelde Moore turns up anywhere. He's No. 17 on the punt return list, but that includes four seasons with the Minnesota Vikings.

If you plow through the latest edition of the Steelers media guide -- and again, who would do such a thing -- you'll see that even the club records for punt and kickoff return yardage are relatively ancient.

The best punt return average in Steelers history, 14.9, got sculpted by one Bobby Gage, who played in 1949 and '50. The best kickoff return average, 29.6, belongs to Lynn Chandnois, who played from 1950-56.

So here we are a half century later, wondering if Mike Wallace or Joe Burnett or Shaun McDonald or Brandon Williams, all of whom have shown great return flashes in training camp to this point, can give even the Super Steelers something they sorely lack.

Perhaps there will be some indication tonight.

Failing that, let's just everyone avoid the stretchers.
Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com. More articles by this author
First published on August 13, 2009 at 12:00 am

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