Working to improve on toughest job in sports: Punt returner


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Steelers receiver Ryan Switzer (10) -- MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

It's a topic that comes up often on message boards and in bars: What's the toughest position to play in all of sports.

Some would say goalie in any of the sports that require the position. Others would say pitcher, catcher or quarterback.

But there's one position that's often overlooked in such discussions. When it comes to playing football, no position might be tougher than being a punt returner.

Cornerbacks are said to be "on the island" in the NFL. But they usually have help of some kind. Punt returners? They're back there all by themselves.

With the improvements in punting skills, games played in elements and the fact there are 11 players on the opposing team bearing down on you while you try to do your job, being a punt return man in the NFL has to be considered among the toughest jobs in all of sports.

"I think it’s a little more in-depth than a lot of people think," Steelers return man Ryan Switzer told me. "A lot of people think it’s just catching the ball, but there’s so many factors that go into it."

The Steelers haven't had a punt returner finish in the top-10 in punt returns since Antonio Brown did so in 2015, with Switzer finishing 11th in 2018 with an 8.4-yard average.

Brown finished in the top 10 four times from 2011 through 2015, missing out in 2012 when he was dealing with an ankle sprain.

But therein lies part of the problem. Brown was the team's star receiver. And most teams don't want to use their star receiver to return punts because of the increase in potential for injury, and because it also can be very taxing on the body.

The Steelers selected receiver Diontae Johnson in the third round of this year's draft -- their second-overall pick -- with the hope he could help replace Brown not only as a receiver, but as a return man.

Asking a rookie to get the offensive reps needed to learn the playbook while also practicing kick returns can be taxing, as Johnson found out in rookie OTAs. It's a lot of extra running, which can take a toll.

"That’s an issue, and I don’t want to bad rep the kid in a sense, but you saw some hamstring issues early," Steelers special teams coordinator Danny Smith said. "Can he? I don’t know. You’ve got to be in tip-top shape. You’re talking about being a wide receiver, a punt returner, a kick returner in this league; you have to be in pretty good shape. That’s a maturation process. I think he has to learn that. I think he understands it. We’ll see what kind of shape he comes back in at. He can do them all. Can he carry that load? That remains to be seen."

And as Switzer said, there's more to being a punt returner than many people realize.

"I try to study just as much film of the punter as I do offensively studying defenses," he told me. "I’ll watch punters. I watch his previous kicks. I’ll watch as many as I can. Like everybody, they have tendencies, as well. They like to do certain things. You try to pick up as much as you can."

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