It was probably the most exciting play for the Steelers thus far in the 2013 season. Late in the 4th quarter, the coaches put Emmanuel Sanders deep in the end zone to receive the kickoff after the Ravens marched down the field for a game tying touchdown drive. Sanders received the kick and took off down the field. Sanders used his very good speed an began tearing down the sidelines. Ten seconds later and Sanders found himself in the end zone with no yellow flags behind him and six more points on the scoreboard. The kick would be called back after an official huddle and Sanders was ruled out of bounds at the 44 yard line.
That kick took the wind out of the ‘wow what an amazing touchdown runback’ sails, but it put the Steelers offense and Big Ben into a position to drive a short field and win the game. Which, they did on a Shaun Suisham field goal. While one shouldn’t make coaching decisions based on one single play, it was this play that made me go back and look at Sanders’ kick/punt return stats. My conclusion? Pleasantly surprised to what I saw and must say that Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin should start using Emmanuel Sanders for kick and punt returns – on a regular basis.
The positive reason why
In his 3 and 3/8 years of playing football, Sanders has taken 32 kickoffs and gained 792 yards. That’s a 24.75 yard average. That’s pretty much on par for what some of the top kick returners average in a season. Felix Jones, the current ‘regular’ return man is averaging 25 yards per return this season. Putting averages aside for a moment, there’s one stat/characteristic that Sanders holds that no other current Steeler has – the percentage and potential for Sanders to have a big return. Sanders, in fewer returns than the other Steeler return men, has racked up more returns for over 30 yards (punt or kick off). Sanders with his speed and agility has the potential to give the Steelers very good field position when the kick or punt is returnable. He has a faster 40 time than teammate Antonio Brown even though Brown currently returns kicks from time to time. He is 2nd on the depth chart, which should quell fears from those who said AB should not be returning punts or kicks when he signed his huge contract extension and deemed the #1 receiver.
The negative reason why
Jones has been solid for the most part returning kicks, but Sanders’ potential should put him in that slot. When it comes to punt returns, Sanders should be put in that slot because the current punt return man, Antonio Brown would serve better on the sidelines during punts than receiving them. Brown has 9 punt returns this season and is averaging 8.2 yards per return. That’s not terrible, but it’s the fair catching that is the cringing stat. Brown has been punted to 22 times, and he has signaled for a fair catch 13 times – 59%. That stat doesn’t seem terrible and if the blocking on the return isn’t very good, then of course he wouldn’t be expected to return every single kick. But, when you watch game film and put those stats into a situational context, it will make you want to chuck your tv into the Mon River. Brown has consistently signaled for a fair catch when there have not been defenders around within 5-10 yards. It’s perplexing, but when you couple it with his unwillingness to put his body on the line after catching a football from Big Ben, it begins to make sense.
If Brown does not want to return punts because he’s worried about injury and if Sanders is willing, then put Sanders out there and see what he can do. It can’t hurt the barely over 5 yard overall punt return average on the season. Sanders if having a difficult time being a reliable receiver in Todd Haley’s offense. He’s halfway to his total yards from last year (44 rec, 626 yds) in just six games. But, many had high hopes that the Brown/Sander duo would allow both to rack up the yards and points for the Steelers starting last season. That hasn’t happened.
The Steelers decided to keep Sanders even though the Patriots were shopping for him this offseason. They may not keep him after this season, so why not utilize him in any way they can? Tomlin doesn’t seem opposed to it as he said in his presser earlier this week. I say go for it. It may just be the special teams spark that could really get this team going.
Stats compiled from ProFootballFocus.com