Ryan Switzer looks to have solved Steelers return woes – and he’s pitched in on offense, too
After years and years of searching, in Ryan Switzer the Pittsburgh Steelers might have finally found their long-term punt returner.
Kick returner, too.
And curiously – just maybe – have they perhaps found their third-down back, too?
For a player who’d been traded twice in a four-month span and who joined the team 13 days before his regular-season debut, Switzer made quite the impression in his first meaningful game as a Steeler.
“We had a good game as far as return units go,” Switzer said Monday, 24 hours after the Steelers tied the Cleveland Browns. “And it’s something we can build on down the road.”
Switzer returned five punts for 56 yards, was sure-handed enough during a driving rainstorm to make two wise decisions in making fair catches (the Browns’ Julius Peppers erred in that area Sunday) – and he had another 34-yard punt return wiped out because of holding penalties.
Yes, the penalties probably helped spring Switzer on that particular return. But he had a 22-yard return on his second attempt. For perspective, the Steelers (Eli Rogers and Antonio Brown) had 30 punt returns last season – and only one went for longer than 22 yards (none longer than 27 yards).
Since almost the moment he became coach in 2007, Mike Tomlin has made repeated attempts to find competent returners. Most recently, Brown – his All Pro receiver whom he’d prefer to protect from the rigors of returning – keeps being forced back to return punts simply because the Steelers had no other viable options.
But in Switzer they appear to have the answer; as a rookie for Dallas last season he ranked ninth in the NFL in punt-return average (8.8) and third in kickoff-return average (25.0).
That latter duty was one he’d never done regularly in his life prior, Switzer said Monday, even as he was scoring seven touchdowns as a punt returner at North Carolina.
Sunday in Cleveland, though, Switzer averaged 23.0 yards on three kickoff returns – each time, getting the Steelers field position out past the 25 yard line, the indication of a successful return.
“I got more comfortable the more reps I got (last season), and now I am feeling like I am just picking up where I left off last year,” Switzer said. “And the more I get to know these guys that are blocking for me, the more I get to learn this system and really perfect what (special teams coach Danny Smith) is asking me to do, the better it will be.”
For perspective, the Steelers ranked 23 rd in the NFL last season in punt-return average and 29 th in kickoff return average. In Week 1, they were tied for seventh in kickoff returns and eight in punt returns using Switzer, for whom they swapped late-round draft picks to get from the Oakland Raiders on Aug. 27.
As a bonus in Week 1, Switzer also played a role on offense. A slightly-unexpected one, too, in that not only did he play in the slot, he also lined up in the backfield.
Aside from Switzer, no other player other than starter James Conner or quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a carry Sunday; no others than those two and fullback Roosevelt Nix lined up in the backfield.
“They tried to get the ball in my hands and make a play,” Switzer said. “I’m for it all – I really don’t care at this point how I am used as long as it’s beneficial to this offense and I can make something happen.”
Switzer had an 8-yard carry on his only offensive touch, though he was targeted as a receiver – something the likes of Darrius Heyward-Bey and James Washington cannot say.
The Steelers did not use other running backs Stevan Ridley or Jaylen Samuels on offense.
“Honestly I feel comfortable where I am at from the offense as a whole, not just when my number is called,” Switzer said. “I’ve tried to come in here and I’ve tried to learn the system as a whole. The trust of the coaches and (teammates) have for me is bigger than if I would just come in and know that I have on one play.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.