Commentary

Small rookie giving Steelers big lift

Former CFL standout Logan could be Steelers' long-awaited answer in return game

Originally Published: September 1, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Stefan LoganG Fiume/Getty ImagesUndersized rookie Stefan Logan has added some sizzle to the Steelers' lagging return game.

What do you get a team that has won two of the past four Super Bowls, appears poised for a run at another championship this season and seems to have everything?

A kick returner, that's what.

"That's just what they need, right?" Buffalo middle linebacker Paul Posluszny said sarcastically after the Bills were pummeled by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Saturday night.

Actually, they do.

Not since the versatile Antwaan Randle El exited to Washington as an unrestricted free agent in 2006 have the Steelers employed a return specialist who could be a difference-maker. In the three seasons since Randle El's departure, Pittsburgh has had 16 kickoff returners, and 10 players have returned punts.

Those ongoing auditions for a return specialist, a guy who can handle kickoff and punt runbacks, might end with Stefan Logan. The 28-year-old rookie spent last season playing with the British Columbia Lions of the CFL, and managed only one season of high school football in Miami before he spent five years bagging groceries and assisting his father in a mortuary. Logan is undersized (5-foot-6, 180 pounds), but he could make a huge difference for the defending Super Bowl champions.

"I think this is the right spot for me, and I feel like I definitely can do the right thing for them," Logan said Saturday night. "There's not a lot this team needs, but I feel pretty confident that I can fill one of the few needs they do have."

So far, with just one preseason game remaining on the schedule, the Lilliputian-sized Logan has fit nicely with the job description.

In three games, he has returned eight punts for 111 yards (13.9-yard average) and four kickoffs for 157 yards (39.3-yard average). When Logan prepares for a return, most of the players rise from the Pittsburgh bench, anticipating a long runback. Several veterans have made bets about when Logan will return a kick for a touchdown. In the second quarter of Saturday's preseason game, the crowd at Heinz Field jeered when Logan signaled for a fair catch, because it meant one less exciting return.

Short of some unforeseen circumstance, Logan has all but earned a spot on the Super Bowl champions' roster.

"He's got our attention," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

Logan is sure-handed, quick and fearless. He might not be quite as quick as New York Jets star Leon Washington, but he isn't more than a nanosecond behind. And assuming he makes the Pittsburgh roster, he will join the fraternity of undersized players (Washington, tailbacks Darren Sproles of San Diego and Maurice Jones-Drew of Jacksonville, and Indianapolis safety Bob Sanders) who have made big impacts.

"We never had any reservations [about his size]," said Pittsburgh director of football operations Kevin Colbert, who never seems to get enough credit for the shaping of the Steelers' roster. "We needed a guy, and he seemed like an exciting player. Little did we know … ."

Logan was highly recommended by Steelers bird-dog Phil Kreidler, who scouts the CFL for the club, after the lightning-quick player averaged 7.2 yards per carry on 122 attempts last season and caught 52 passes for 477 yards. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette cited British Columbia coach Wally Buono as calling Logan "the most exciting player" in the CFL.

Even after signing Logan as a free agent, the team invested two 2009 draft choices (Mississippi wide receiver Mike Wallace in the third round and Central Florida cornerback Joe Burnett in the fifth) on players with extensive return backgrounds.

When it comes to kickoff and punt returns, the Steelers could use some excitement and stability, and it's Logan who has supplied both.

For the three-season period of 2006 through 2008, the NFL average for kickoff returns was 22.66 yards, and the average increased from the previous season in all three seasons. Over the same stretch, the Steelers averaged 21.48 yards, and the average decreased each season -- from 22.07 yards (2006) to 22.02 yards (2007) to 21.26 yards (2008). The club experienced the same kind of decrease in average punt returns, which were at 9.02 yards per runback from 2006 through 2008. The Steelers scored a total of two touchdowns on kick returns (one kickoff return and one punt return) in those three seasons. That equals the number of touchdowns Randle El scored in 2005.

In those three seasons, Pittsburgh never ranked higher than No. 22 in the league in average kickoff return and only once rated higher than 13th on average punt return. The Steelers had only one kickoff returner ranked higher than 26th in the league individually and just two punt returners ranked higher than No. 17.

The Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII despite being next-to-last in the NFL in kickoff return average and 25th in punt return average.

Enter Logan.

"I never thought about them being the Super Bowl champions," said Logan, who is nicknamed "Joystick" by his teammates. "My coach told me the Steelers needed a kick returner, that the job was wide open … and that was good enough for me."

Logan has proved to be plenty good enough for the Steelers.

After playing at Jackson High School in Miami and then spending five seasons in the real world, Logan, with help from his father, pieced together a highlight reel, and that earned him a scholarship at South Dakota. He finished his career there as the school's all-time leader in rushing yards (5,958) and all-purpose yards (7,859). After a failed tryout with the New York Giants and a short stint on the Miami Dolphins' practice squad in 2007, Logan went to the CFL to play.

"Playing in South Dakota first and then going to the CFL … it was like a culture shock both [in] places for me," said Logan, who sports a mouth full of gold-capped teeth and a fairly prominent tattoo ("Live now, die later") on his left biceps. "But it was football, and I needed to play. I know there's a place in his league for the smaller player, because I've been watching Sproles since he was a junior in college. I expect some big things now."

So do the Steelers.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.