SOUTH HILLS (it’s my tribute) – Justin Gilbert admits the nervousness he felt was heightened a little bit more than even his collectively-anxious teammates and Steelers fans across the globe.
With 2 minutes left this past Sunday and the Steelers clinging to a two-point lead, they needed a first down to close out the game.
“When AB caught the first down,” Gilbert recalled, “it was just kind of like a ::shew!::”
I was asking Gilbert his thoughts watching the Steelers close out the game on Thursday – but rest assured, if the offense wouldn’t have done so and the Steelers had lost, Gilbert undoubtedly would have been bombarded with questions about it much before that. As in, postgame. And, like, from every member of the media.
That’d be because – fair or not – Gilbert’s kickoff return of minus-2 yards that began the Steelers’ final possession – again, fair or not – would have taken a significant public share of the blame. It might be a stretch to say it would have been a play that would have lived in Steelers infamy forever – but it would be up there remembered like Joe Nedney’s “acting” and Fitzgerald Toussaint’s fumble as plays over the years that cost the Steelers a chance to advance to an AFC championship game.
Gilbert’s only current role on the team is as a kickoff returner – and he just (re-)earned the job last week. As a result, he was only on the field four snaps, only touched the ball twice.
His first return was a good one – 28 yards (a Steelers’ playoff high) on the opening kickoff. But his second return, um, was not so good.
With the Chiefs having just scored a touchdown (but missing out on the two-point conversion) to pull within 2 late, Gilbert fielded Cairo Santos’ kickoff at the 7. He ran straight forward at first – but with a wall of Chiefs bearing down on him, Gilbert cut right.
It, um, didn’t work. He was tackled at the 5. The ball even came out late; however, it was after the play was ruled down.
The damage was done, though: the Steelers were backed up so far that Le’Veon Bell was lined up deep in his own end zone for the ensuing snap. And if the Steelers went three-and-out, Kansas City likely would have been very close to being in range for a game-winning field goal (to say nothing of Tyreek Hill having another shot).
“I was planning to take a knee – ‘Just take a knee,’” Gilbert said.
But that strategy was rendered moot when Santos (probably intentionally) kicked it short.
“Then, (the Chiefs’ coverage players) were up on me so fast. I caught a glimpse to my right. I thought I had an opening; I started running that way and I saw (teammate Eli Rogers) waving his hand, like, ‘I got your block; come on.’ So I was trying to make it to the block. But No. 21, (rookie Eric Murray), he did a good job of cutting me off.”
The Arrowhead Stadium crowd was rocking. The Chiefs had all the momentum.
Fortunately for the Steelers – and Gilbert – the offense came through.
In reality, after watching the play multiple times, the blame (and “credit”) lies not with Gilbert on the play but on the Steelers’ return ream and, mostly, the Chiefs coverage team. Gilbert never stood a chance (albeit he’d have been better off just being tackled at the 12, of course). Still, coach Mike Tomlin was noncommittal at his weekly press conference about whether Gilbert would hold onto his kickoff returner job.
Turns out, he has.
Gilbert said he’ll be active, in-uniform and back on kickoff returns.
“I’m back there again this week,” Gilbert said. “So hopefully we can make one pop.”