Kevin Gorman: Steelers third running back battle a 'Nightmare'
The absence of Le'Veon Bell throughout training camp has given the Steelers a long look at their stable of running backs.
The impending return of the Pro Bowl back — he confirmed to ESPN.com he would report Sept. 1 — coupled with third-rounder James Conner gives the Steelers a strong one-two punch in the backfield.
The battle for the third spot has been nothing short of a “Nightmare.”
That's Mike Tomlin's nickname for Terrell Watson, the 6-foot-1, 240-pounder from Azusa Pacific, the alma mater of former Kansas City Chiefs star Christian Okoye, a.k.a. the Nigerian Nightmare.
Watson has had the kind of camp that could keep a head coach up all night, wondering whether to keep a bruising back cut the past two years by the Bengals, Browns, Broncos and Eagles.
“He's got a distinguishing trait: He's a downhill runner,” Tomlin said, “and he's displayed that consistently.”
Watson will make Tomlin's decision at the position a difficult one, especially after rushing for 40 yards on eight carries and catching four passes for 42 yards, including a 22-yarder, in the 19-15 loss to the Indianapolis Colts Saturday night at Heinz Field.
“Every time I go out there, I'm hungry. Every time I go out there, I want to make a statement,” Watson said. “I always have a chip on my shoulder, being a D-II kid, you know. I go out there every day and make people not want to tackle me.”
That differentiates Watson from veteran backs Knile Davis, Fitzgerald Toussaint and Tre Williams at a spot where Tomlin said there is “stiff competition.”
The Steelers know what they have in Toussaint, the incumbent who has been serviceable as the third back and kick-return specialist. Aside from a 64-yard punt return for a touchdown against Atlanta, Williams hasn't shown much.
Where Conner got the bulk of carries against Atlanta and leads the Steelers in rushing with 124 yards on 24 carries, Davis was the featured back in the first half against the Colts and ran for 21 yards on seven carries.
“We just want to get to know everybody,” Tomlin said. “It's not always necessarily even, but it is fair in that everyone will get an opportunity to show what they're capable of. That's the approach that we've taken.”
If the Steelers are looking to make an upgrade behind Bell and Conner, Watson has clearly been the best of the backs in camp and games.
But it's not so simple.
Preseason statistics are relatively meaningless, considering starters play sparingly. It's not fair to compare Davis' rushing totals behind the starting offensive line and against a first-team defense, to what Watson did with and against backups.
“I don't weigh that too heavy, man,” Tomlin said. “All of these guys are professional, working their tails off. I'd imagine there are similar people in there on the other side for the opponents, so you can waste a lot of time overanalyzing some of that. The big thing is, what do the guys do in the opportunities given?”
Watson is averaging 4.7 yards per carry (87 yards on 18), second only to Conner, and leads the Steelers in yards per catch (10.5), with 42 yards on four receptions.
The key could be special teams, where the third back has to make an impact. Tomlin, however, said serving as a kick-return specialist “might not be exclusively tied to that position.”
Toussaint has an edge in experience with the Steelers over Davis and Watson, but averaged only 21.5 yards on 12 kick returns last season.
Davis was supposed to be a threat in the return game but is averaging a pedestrian 18.2 yards after going for 32.1 for the Chiefs in 2013 and 28.6 in '14, thanks to touchdown returns of 108 and 99 yards.
“Everything is kind of generic right now,” Davis said of the preseason. “I think I'm a few blocks away from breaking a big one. It'll come. It's a process.”
Determining who wins the third-back battle also is a process, one that could be a nightmare for Tomlin and a dream come true for the running back the Steelers coach calls “Nightmare.”