It’s always a story when a player plays his former team for the first time, especially if it wasn’t really up to the player to have parted ways. Gunner Olszewski might not be the most notable name on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster, nor the easiest to pronounce, but it is a significant one as they prepare to face his former team today, the New England Patriots.
A former small-school college free agent, Olszewski carved out a niche as a return man while in New England, even earning All-Pro honors in 2020, but Bill Belichick was willing to let him go this offseason as a restricted free agent. Now it’s up to Patriots special teams coordinator Cameron Achord to stop him.
“Gunner’s aggressive. Mindset is he’s not going to want to fair catch the ball; he doesn’t want to fair catch the ball. That’s what you love about the guy”, he told reporters during the week leading up to today’s game, as quoted on the Steelers’ website.
“He did a good job for us when he was here. Now it’s our job to go out and stop him and eliminate him that way as far as his return opportunities”, he added. “He’s going to be aggressive. You know he’s going to take chances as far as trying to catch the ball and get vertical and stretch the field. He does a really good job with the ball in his hands. He’s always able to run through tackles and he makes sharp cuts on the runs. It’s going to be a really good challenge for us”.
Olszewski only got to return one kick for the Steelers in their opener last week, a punt that he was able to take for 20 yards. The only other punt by the Cincinnati Bengals (you don’t have to punt much when you’re turning the ball over) was a touchback, as were five of the six kickoffs.
But he had success with the Patriots in both departments. He totaled 834 punt return yards over three seasons there on 66 returns, including one touchdown. He also had 834 kick return yards on 36 returns. In 2020, he led the league with a punt return average of 17.3 yards.
Achord had been the Patriots’ special teams coordinator for the entirety of Olszewski’s time there, so he knows him as well as anybody in the league, perhaps. He was the assistant special teams coordinator in Olszewski’s rookie season in 2019 before being promoted to the head job in 2020.
He knows how the Steelers’ new return man likes to take it because he’s had to plan how to block for his style of returning for the past three years. in such situations, I would imagine the advantage goes to the coordinator, though the Steelers can plan accordingly and adjust their blocking schemes.
The hope is, of course, that he only has to return one kickoff, but many punts, because that means the Patriots aren’t scoring points or even attempting field goals. But if he does have to return kickoffs, it will be up to him to put the offense in good field position to try to match points on the scoreboard.