Dri Archer was drafted to be the one of the NFL’s fastest players — a game-changing kick returner and a certifiable threat to score whenever he had his hands on the ball as a running back or receiver.
Despite Archer’s compact size (5-foot-8 and 173 pounds), coach Mike Tomlin badly wanted a playmaker who could inject big-play capabilities into the Steelers offense and special teams.
So the Steelers passed up prospects at positions of need, such as cornerback, to draft Archer in the third round. And they immediately began sketching out ways to get him on the field as a receiver out of the backfield, as a wideout in extra-receiver sets and as a player who defenses simply had to respect.
Six months later, Archer is the fastest player on the Steelers bench.
Nobody seems to know when he’ll get off it or when the Steelers’ deficient kick-return game will begin giving Ben Roethlisberger and the offense the kind of field position that could make a difference down the stretch.
“It’s hard on young guys. It really is,” special teams coach Danny Smith said Thursday of making the transition from college to the NFL, as Archer is. “Some guys can step right in and it’s natural, some guys it’s not.
“I think he’s going to be successful, but there’s some development that needs to be done there. Hopefully, we’re developing him.”
Right now, Archer, despite his 4.26 seconds speed in the 40-yard dash, is showing off his speed only in practice.
Archer was supposed to be the primary kick returner, but after averaging 17.9 yards on nine returns (the lowest in the league at the time), he was benched for LeGarrette Blount and, more recently, Markus Wheaton.
He’s not getting on the field offensively, either. Since getting 15 snaps in the opener against Cleveland, he’s had only 22 snaps in seven games he’s played. Those 37 snaps have produced only 41 yards rushing and 9 yards receiving — the kind of yardage the Steelers envisioned Archer getting on a single play.
“But I’m not getting down,” Archer said. “I’m just working every day … (I) keep attacking work. Coach says it’s coming, just be patient and keep working.”
Regardless of who is handling kickoffs, the Steelers aren’t getting much yardage. They’re 31st with an 18.8 average — fifth lowest in team history to this point — and their longest return is 34 yards.
As a result, their average starting field position is slightly past the 25, eighth lowest in the league and nearly 9 yards fewer than the Dolphins are getting. That means the Steelers need an extra first down every drive just to keep up with teams with strong return games.
Their punt returning (6.9 yards average) is slightly better but still is nearly 10 yards per return behind league-leading Philadelphia.
With six games remaining, the Steelers (6-4) never have had a season in which both their kickoff return and punt return averages were so low at the same time.
“It’s just repetition, repetition, repetition. We’ve improved, but we’re nowhere near where we need to be,” Smith said. “The trend this year (around the NFL) has been different formations on kickoff coverages. … (So) it’s just a matter of working it, working it, working it.”
The Steelers are better covering kickoffs and punts than returning them, despite the Ravens’ Jacoby Jones’ 108-yard kickoff return touchdown against them.
Shaun Suisham remains one of the NFL’s most accurate kickers, despite his 23-yard field goal miss against the Jets. He’s 16 of 18 with a career-long 53-yarder.
Punter Brad Wing, the other key first-year player on special teams, is fourth from the bottom in the league with a 43.9 punting average and 18th in net (39.0 average). But Smith is encouraged. Wing often is asked to sacrifice distance for placement or to use his Aussie roll style to keep a punt inside the 20.
Wing showed his athleticism by converting a mishandled snap into a 2-point conversion pass against the Ravens.
“That’s where my game is improving, taking control of each situation and not letting the situation take control of you,” Wing said.