When unrestricted free agent Antwaan Randle El defected to the Washington Redskins this spring, for a six-year contract that included $11.5 million in guarantees, conventional wisdom suggested his loss would have a negative impact on the Pittsburgh Steelers more in the punt return game than with their passing attack.
Three weeks into the season, with the Steelers at 1-2 and their punt return component ranked as one of the least productive in the NFL, that original assessment appears to be right-on.
Pittsburgh is averaging an anemic 3.1 yards per punt return, next-to-last in the league, and the Steelers have just one runback for more than three yards. But the performance of the return men who supplanted Randle El for the first three games -- rookie wide receiver Santonio Holmes, the team's first-round draft choice, and cornerbacks Ricardo Colclough and Ike Taylor -- might be even worse than the statistics indicate.
Randle El isn't exactly lighting things up, either, with an 8.1-yard average. But that's more than double the mean return for the Steelers, who are struggling mightily.
"We're not getting it done right now," acknowledged Holmes, who has two returns for 16 yards, along with three fair catches. "We have to get it turned around. This isn't acceptable and we understand that. Everyone knows it's been a [deficiency]."
The return problem was magnified in Sunday's home loss to Cincinnati when, with the Steelers leading 17-14, Colclough mishandled a punt, and the Bengals recovered at the Pittsburgh 9-yard line. The Bengals scored one play later to assume a lead they never surrendered en route to a 28-20 victory in a key, intense divisional battle.
Although the Colclough gaffe was certainly the most egregious error the Steelers have experienced in the punt return game, it was also reflective of a festering problem. Neither Colclough nor Holmes, who is often used when the Pittsburgh coaches feel a punt will travel deep into Steelers' territory, has appeared comfortable in the role Randle El handed well for four seasons. Both have mishandled and misjudged punts, making just about every return far more adventurous and, frankly, nerve-wracking than they need to be.
Colclough, who has also been used on kickoff returns, has been consistently shaky fielding the ball. Although Holmes has caught the ball more cleanly, his judgement hasn't always been so keen, as evidenced when he fielded a punt at the Pittsburgh 4-yard line in the season opener against Miami, rather than allowing the ball to sail into the end zone for a touchback.
Not counting Colclough's fumble on Sunday, a critical play in a close contest, Pittsburgh's average starting point for drives following punts is its own 16-yard line. The Steelers have originated eight possessions from inside their own 15-yard line and four series inside the 10-yard line.
No one can criticize the Steelers for not trying harder to retain Randle El, whom Washington owner Daniel Snyder overpaid to leave the Super Bowl champions. But the Steelers felt they could replace Randle El in the return game with either Holmes or third-round choice Willie Reid, and so far that hasn't been the case.
In fact, Reid, whose draft stock soared in general because of his perceived explosiveness as a return man, has yet to dress for a game.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.