With a stagnant and stale Pittsburgh Steelers’ offense, the team has looked to other areas for splash. Their defense has done plenty of that, second in the league in takeaways while registering the third-most sacks of any team that has had a bye week. Point is, when Pittsburgh’s won games, it’s largely because of the playmaking of its defense.
For Mike Tomlin, he wants to see special teams join the party. Kicker Chris Boswell has continued to be his excellent self, making more career 50-plus yard kicks than all others combined in team history, but the return game has been lackluster. Kick returns have been an adventure with four different men used this season: Anthony McFarland Jr., Gunner Olszewski, Desmond King II, and Godwin Igwebuike.
On punts, WR Calvin Austin III has been the team’s primary punt returner (Olszewski’s short time there did not end well) but the production hasn’t been there. During his weekly sit-down with Bob Pompeani previewing tomorrow’s game against the Tennessee Titans, Tomlin challenged Austin to step up.
“The return game component, looking for splash in the return game,” Tomlin told Pompeani via Steelers.com. “Really excited about Calvin and what he’s capable of. Been close for a few weeks. We need a splash play in that regard.”
On the year, Austin has returned nine punts for 44 yards, an average of just 4.9 yards. Of the 37 players with at least five punt returns this season, Austin’s average ranks an ugly 35th. Offensively, Austin has made just one impact play this season, a 72-yard touchdown catch in Week Three against the Las Vegas Raiders. Beyond that, his game has been quiet, and his playing time has been drastically reduced since Diontae Johnson’s return. In Week Seven, he played just seven offensive snaps and did not catch a pass. In Week Eight, his only two receptions came in the final two minutes with the outcome essentially decided.
As Tomlin went on to point out, the Titans have one of the game’s best punters in Ryan Stonehouse. He’s the man who broke Sammy Baugh’s decades-long record for punting average in 2022, with 53.1 yards per punt. Those booming boots should create chances for Austin to run the ball back. Penalties have wiped out promising returns and if he can find a lane, his low-4.3 speed can produce a big play. Field position will be key in tomorrow’s game that figures to be a low-scoring affair. And giving the Steelers’ offense a short field seems to be a requirement to come away with victories.