A Blast from the Past: Today’s Question We Were Debating Back in the Day

SA Today Sports/Charles LeClaire

On October 26, 2011, Hombre de Acero wrote:

The 2011 NFL season is 7 weeks old, with Week 8 rapidly approaching. The Pittsburgh Steelers are 5-2 and riding high on a three-game win streak. But all three wins have come against less than stellar competition. The Steelers took care of business and are now set to begin the “varsity section” of their schedule starting with this week’s game against the Patriots. Which brings us to this week’s 5 Burning Questions:

But rather than debate the present, Hombre first speculated about the “top-flight nose tackle” the Steelersi n his created scenario, drafted in the spring of 2012. Which as we all know didn’t happen. Nor did Hombre necessarily think it would. But it is interesting to reflect how far the team has evolved in one year under Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler that hardly anyone is talking about how we ought to look for a Casey Hampton type.

Which may mean the Steelers will surprise us by doing just that in the first round. But one gets the sense they aren’t interested in one-down players anymore, preferring the flexibility which comes with a player athletic enough to both clog the middle from time to time and get after the passer on passing downs.

Which made me wonder, how many sacks did Casey Hampton have in his career? According to his stats page, nine in his 12-year career, which comes to three-quarters of a sack per season, including playoffs, or one in every 19.2 games. I’m not sure this represents a “splash player” of the sort Mike Tomlin is enamored of.

But to return to 2011, The “less than stellar competition” of which Hombre spoke was none other than the Arizona Cardinals, under Head Coach Ken Whisenhunt. Just a few years removed from their Super Bowl loss to the Steelers, the only team they had beaten prior to the Week 7 32-20 loss to the Steelers was the feckless Panthers in Week 1. (The Panthers would finish the season 6-10, as they were in the early stages of a complete rebuild.)

The Cardinals finished a bit better, as they began winning after the Steelers loss, ending the season 8-8. So they were actually a stronger team than they appeared in the loss.

The game in question was quite decisive, with the Steelers leading from the get-go, the first one being the old reliable Ben-to-Heath combination. Ben would throw three touchdown passes and no interceptions, the defense got a safety, and Shaun Suisham was 3-for-3 on field goal attempts. All in all a satisfactory day.

There were several interesting questions on the list, and one in particular I will probably pull out another time, but I’ve decided to go with No. 3:

3. Antonio Brown is becoming a dangerous return man. But his importance to the offense also increases with each week. At what point does he become too important to the offense to risk in the return game?

Who among us could have predicted he would be considered, almost without question, the best receiver in an NFL still containing Larry Fitzgerald, Calvin Johnson, and a slew of young up-and-comers, four years later?

This question is so amusing to me because despite the Steelers’ efforts to find someone else to take over those duties, once again they were forced back into using AB for punt returns, four years later. And, ironically, the first injury AB suffered since 2012 was in the course of his duties as the unquestioned No. 1 receiver on the team. Of course, you could just say that Vontaze Burfict happened. But the only other injury AB has had which kept him out of a game was a high ankle sprain suffered in the game against the New York Football Giants.

That was the game the Giants were supposed to win, because Roger Goodell came to the game in support of the victims of Superstorm Sandy, some of whom were Giants players. The Steelers won anyhow. You realized it was destiny when Ike Taylor actually had an interception. Clearly the universe had returned to normal later in the game when he dropped another sure one, right in his hands, in the end zone.

Mike Wallace also had one of his patented turbo-jetting touchdowns. Since AB was injured they put Emmanuel Sanders on duty, and he almost took one to the house. Those were heady days with the Young Money Crew. Redzone Redman put the icing on the cake, running for 147 yards and a touchdown. And AB wasn’t returning kicks any more. Chris Rainey was, and had 175 yards on five returns…

Let’s have a look at the comments and see if anyone picked up on just how far up Brown’s arrow would be pointing, as Mike Tomlin might say:

PixburghArn:

You take the chance.

wozzle contended:

They have enough depth at WR to keep Brown returning kicks for now.

This, in fact, was pretty much the opinion across the board. But chicos_pants speculated a bit:

If he’s a bone fide starter on offense. He’s still not there yet – you could probably make the argument that he’s the #2 receiving threat on our offense, however he’s still not a clear starting receiver yet. But once he rounds out the rest of his route running and coverage recognition (like being on the same page as Ben for hot routes, which hasn’t often been the case from what I’ve seen), we might have to start considering finding someone else to take some of the return duties.

tannofsteel84 disagreed:

I don’t think it will come to that point [of Brown being a starting No. 1 or 2 receiver.] I don’t see how we’re going to keep Sanders, Brown, and Wallace all after their rookie contract. Brown is becoming Holmes 2.0, by his fourth year he may be that guy. Sanders is becoming Hines 2.0. I’m not worried about keeping Sanders but Brown I think will command a lot of money in Free Agency and I don’t know if he’ll turn it down to stay with us. So we are always going to have other receivers that we can use in the event that he goes down. I think his value is way too high on special teams to not use him. Even though he hasn’t scored points yes, I think he will eventually. You want to use him as much as you can. Holmes only started really getting taken out of that role when he was a #1 WR. I don’t see Brown staying here long enough to become that #1 WR, Wallace will have that role, so I say use him because Sanders can be a good #2 WR. The real question is if Brown does go down, who would be a good #3 WR. I think that is yet to be determined beyond this year. I still contend we sign Plax next year and let Cotchery go.

And here’s my favorite “irony in hindsight” statement, from ChitownSteelerfan:

With Wallace ahead of Brown and Sanders available, Brown stays on the return team. He only becomes “too valuable” when he’s the #1 WR or there’s no clear-cut replacement.

And theatrain agreed:

If Antonio were to become our #1 receiver, then you take him off special teams. Not happening soon.

steelerintexas was the only one to think it was already time to take AB off of return duties:

At this point, save him for the offense. Hell we won the super bowl in 08 with Gary Russell returning kicks for cryin out loud.

Mike Frazer had probably the best read on how Mike Tomlin actually felt (feels) about the situation:

This game is all about taking risks for the big reward. I don’t think he DOES become too important because Tomlin values all three phases of the game.

So what ARE the Steelers going to do about protecting their asset? I’ve been hollering for years they should find a replacement, and I expect Mike Tomlin’s response to me would be “You find me someone else as good as AB, I’ll take him off right away.” Fair enough. What’s your take?

4 comments

  • AB returns punts until we find someone who at least catches the ball without giving everyone a heart attack and exhibits at least some ability to know when a fair catch is appropriate and can gain some positive yardage when there is an opening. It’s pretty basic and we don’t need someone with the explosiveness of AB or Devin Hester, but the baseline is ball security and very few mistakes.

    It’s amazing to me that we have been unable to find a competent successor. I’m not aware that there is any real problem with returners getting injured, but he’s so valuable, I’d rather someone else do it, so long he is not cursed with Jacoby Jones disease.

    Like

    • cold_old_steelers_fan

      I am with you on this. There should be a huge effort to find someone who can return punts this off-season but we can’t have people who cannot return punts, returning punts.

      Like

  • I’m fine with him doing it until someone better steps in.

    Also, as a victim of Superstorm Sandy (nonsense..it was a hurricane)(also, RIP 2005 Honda Civic), I like to think that the Steelers victory was especially for me. Screw the Giants.

    Liked by 2 people

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