When called upon, he’s capable of delivering. Obviously, he’s a starting wide receiver for us and it’s not something we want to do all the time. But at the appropriate time we’ll dial his number, and I thought he delivered. – Mike Tomlin on using Emmanuel Sanders as a kick returner.
- Upon reading that, one has to wonder if Mike Tomlin has found his Darrell Green.
Darrell Green you ask? Yes, Darrell Green.
Green of course was a Hall of Fame cornerback for the Washington Redskins whose career spanned 20 years, 6 Head Coaches, 3 owners and included seven Pro Bowls, 3 trips to the Super Bowl and 2 Lombardi’s. As a cornerback in the heyday of the NFC, Green covered the likes of Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin and defended passes thrown by Hall of Famers such as Phil Simms, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, and Steve Young.
- What in the world could Green have in common with Emmanuel Sanders?
One fact often forgotten is that Green also returned punts. No, he didn’t do it on a regular basis the way Rod Woodson did, which is was probably a good thing. Long time Washington, DC WMAL/WTEM sport radio commentator Ken Beatrice once explained to a caller that Joe Gibbs didn’t have Green return punts often because he didn’t want to over-use him.
- But when Gibbs deployed Green as a punt returner, he Green returned them with impact.
The best example was the 1987 NFC Divisional playoff, Walter Payton’s final pro game, where Green returned a 52 yard punt to win the game. In his 20 years, Green only returned 51 punts in 9 seasons. But he had a 12.0 yard average, which ties him for 10th all time (Green doesn’t have enough attempts to make the list.)
Writing in the Steelers Digest, Steel City Insider’s Jim Wexell shared this observation:
Sanders returned kickoffs in practice prior to the Jets game, and ran harder than I had ever seen him run before. I just assumed he would return kickoffs against the Jets and when it didn’t happen I expected him to return kicks against the Ravens. Finally with the season on the line he returned a kickoff.
Wexell quoted Jerricho Cotchery as saying “He’s lighting. We just bring him out when we really need something.”
Emmanuel Sanders returned both kicks and punts during his rookie year, but injuries and promotion into the top tier of receivers have limited those since then. Tomlin wisely does not want to press his luck with using his number two receiver as a kick returner.
But Tomlin has a good track record with using his starters in spot-return duty. People forget that the Steelers started their 2008 AFC Divisional playoff game sluggishly until Santonio Holmes broke things open with a 67 yard punt return for a touchdown.
- Vs. the Ravens, Sanders of course didn’t make it (officially) to the end zone, but his return unequivocally announced to the Ravens that the Steelers were in it to win it.
Steelers Nation looks forward to many more such returns.