Smith returning punts reflects Ravens’ need for field position

September 18, 2015 | Luke Jones

Watching Steve Smith return punts in the Ravens’ season opener was one of the more eyebrow-raising developments of Week 1.

But the Ravens appear content moving forward with their No. 1 wide receiver as their primary punt returner despite the injury risk that accompanies the job. A Pro Bowl return specialist early in his career with Carolina, Smith gained 32 yards on two attempts in his first action as a return man since the 2010 season. His 22-yard return in the third quarter was one of the Ravens’ longest plays in any phase of the 19-13 loss to Denver.

“We want to have our best football team out there,” special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg said. “The best players for [those] positions are the guys that are going to help us win. I can assure you Steve Smith is excited to be back there. He’s a competitor. He loves playing football. He likes having the ball in his hands, and he’s the best guy we have. He’s going in the game, because we’re trying to win.”

With the offense lacking a vertical threat in the passing game with rookie Breshad Perriman still sidelined with a sprained knee, you have to wonder if the Ravens are desperate to maximize their field position for a more methodical offense than they anticipated having. Smith offers more ability to gain yards after the catch than second-year understudy Michael Campanaro, the man most assumed would be the primary punt returner.

Because of his importance to a passing game lacking reliable weapons for quarterback Joe Flacco, Smith serving as the primary punt returner is risky, but it’s hardly an outrageous proposition. Pittsburgh still uses Antonio Brown as its primary punt returner despite the 27-year-old arguably being the best receiver in the NFL. Of course, Brown is nine years younger than Smith, but he caught 129 passes for just under 1,700 yards in 2014, a major reason why the Steelers won the AFC North.

Brown also returned 30 punts for 319 yards in 2014, matching the number of punt returns made by ex-Raven Jacoby Jones last season.

Using a 36-year-old as a return man is unconventional, but Smith is one of two players in NFL history — the other being new Hall of Fame inductee Tim Brown — to accumulate 13,000 receiving yards and 4,000 return yards. You just hope the Ravens aren’t asking their veteran wideout to do too much as they need him to remain fresh for the entire season as their young receivers and tight ends try to grow up as quickly as possible in Marc Trestman’s offense.

“At this time — right now, right here — Steve Smith is our best option,” Rosburg said. “We’re excited about him because you saw what he did last week. His experience shows. His competitiveness shows. His judgment shows. It’s fun to watch. I’m excited to have him back there. I see him trot back there, and it gives me a lot of confidence.”