After watching video of Antonio Brown fair-catch two punts against the New York Jets, Mike Tomlin yelled across the room, "Antonio, you stop returning punts?"
Even the coach noticed.
Brown elected not to return two punts in the second quarter when it appeared he had enough room to run. But the Steelers wide receiver, a Pro Bowl return specialist in 2011, said he decided not to return the punts because the Steelers were trying for a block and he didn't have any blockers.
"He knows I got playmaking ability and he thinks every time a punt is there, we have a chance to return it," Brown said. "But when we call a block, from my standpoint, it's all about securing the ball. A blocked punt [call] leaves me solo without any blockers. In that situation, I try to be smart."
The Steelers have received little, if any, production from their return games, a drought that has been magnified during a 1-4 start.
The lack of long returns, coupled with four games of no takeaways by the defense, has made it difficult for the offense.
The long fields might be part of the reason the Steelers have been inside the opposing 20 only 13 times in five games, tied for fewest in the AFC. They have scored five touchdowns in those 13 trips inside the red zone, a conversion rate of 38.4 percent, second lowest in the NFL.
Brown's longest return in five games is a 40-yarder against Cincinnati in Week 2. Other than that, his longest return is an 11-yarder he had in the third quarter against the Jets.
It's even worse on kick returns where the longest return is a 34-yarder by Felix Jones, also against the Bengals.
This is nothing new. Last year, the Steelers had one punt return longer than 29 yards and that was a 63-yarder by Emmanuel Sanders against the New York Giants. Their longest kick return came in that same game -- a 68-yarder by Chris Rainey. In each instance, the offense failed to take advantage of the return, not scoring any points. They have not had a return influence an outcome since Week 12 of the 2011 season when Brown returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown in a victory against the Bengals.
If they need a reminder what a return can do, witness what Baltimore's Jacoby Jones did to them last year at Heinz Field. The Steelers held the Ravens to 200 yards, 12 first downs and no offensive touchdowns, but Jones' 63-yard punt return for touchdown in the first quarter was the difference in the Ravens' 13-10 victory.
Jones is the author of the longest play in Super Bowl history, returning the second-half kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown in the Ravens' 34-31 victory against the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII in February. After missing four games with a knee injury, he returned last week against the Green Bay Packers and will play today.
"I am sure they are excited about getting him back," Tomlin said.
The Steelers would like to feel the same way about their return game.Steelers
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter: @gerrydulac First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM