While it is not necessary earth-shattering news, the Steelers reportedly made a big decision regarding their special teams unit according to Alan Robinson of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. In his article, Robinson cited that Pittsburgh would use LaRod Stephens-Howling on kickoff returns and rookie Markus Wheaton on punts during the team’s next preseason game against the Redskins.
The decision to utilize “The Hyphen” in the kickoff return role makes perfect sense to me, especially because I thought that he was the best man for the job after he was acquired as a free agent back in April. Already armed with plenty of experience returning kicks, Stephens-Howling logged 2,805 kickoff return yards and three touchdowns during his first two (2009-2010) seasons in the league. Quick, shifty, and small, the soon-to-be fifth year running back should be able to provide the Steelers with some stability in that particular area of special teams.
While I loved Antonio Brown’s play-making ability as a punt returner, I can understand why the Steelers want to give others a chance to return punts. For one thing, Brown’sball security issues over the last two seasons are probably a big cause for concern. His cough up against Dallas in Week 15 last year turned the tide of the game, and one could even argue that play cost Pittsburgh the game at a time when they were up by a touchdown during the second half.
I should also add that since Mike Wallace is off in Miami and Heath Miller is rehabbing from his knee injury and subsequent surgery, it will be up to Brown and Emmanuel Sanders to pick up the slack in Pittsburgh’s passing game. So to me, it makes perfect sense why the Steelers would take him off of the punt return team and replace him with another play-maker in the form of Wheaton.
Although Wheaton did not return very many kickoffs (four for 81 yards) and punts (three for 68 yards) at the collegiate level, one must consider the fact that Oregon State had one of the nation’s most effective punt returners in the form of Jordan Poyer also on their roster. Moreover, Wheaton was the Beavers’ most explosive and potent offensive threat during his final three years in Corvallis. So while Wheaton had the athletic tools to shine as a return man, I could understand why Oregon State’s coaching staff would want him to avoid an unnecessary injury out on special teams.
As it stands, I am excited to see how both players are able to perform against Washington, particularly the enigmatic rookie. With Sanders and Brown out of the way and David Gilreath likely done after his muffed punt against the Giants, both Stephens-Howling and Wheaton now have ample chances shine in their respective special teams roles.
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