As one would hope and expect, Pittsburgh Steelers rookie running back James Conner has been impressive so far as a ball carrier in the first two preseason games of his career. The University of Pittsburgh product and second of two third-round draft picks this year has registered 124 yards on 24 carries so far during the preseason and should be able to add to those totals during the teams preseason finale against the Carolina Panthers. Conner, however, hasn’t been the Steelers only productive running back so far this preseason as Terrell Watson, officially a first-year player out of Azusa Pacific, has also made the most of his limited opportunities as well.
While Watson’s playing time has come late during the Steelers preseason games, he’s still managed to register 84 yards rushing on 18 total carries. He’s also caught four passes for another 42 yards with all of those coming in the team’s Saturday night loss to the Indianapolis Colts.
“You know, he did a nice job,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said of Watson’s Saturday night performance during his post-game press conference. “He has a distinguishing trait. He’s a downhill runner and displayed that consistently.”
Through three preseason games, running backs Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint both haven’t come close to providing the kind of production that Conner and Watson have. To make matters worse, Davis hasn’t shined in three preseason games as a kickoff returner as he’s averaged 18.2 yards on his six opportunities with a long of 21. Even worse, Toussaint, who didn’t see any playing time on offense Saturday night by design, left the game early in the second half with a reported leg injury that Tomlin later called a contusion of some kind.
While most expect the Steelers to only carry three running backs in total on their 53-man roster this year with Conner and currently absent starter Le’Veon Bell being two of them, Tomlin made it clear after Saturday’s game that the kick return abilities of Davis won’t necessarily factor into the final decision as to which running back will ultimately be No. 3.
“I’m not ready to address how ready the kick return job is in terms of order and some of those things might not be exclusively be at that position,” Tomlin said during his post-game press conference.
So, is it possibly that Watson could ultimately be kept as either the No. 3, or even No. 4, running back? We’ll, I dont think you can rule that possibility out just yet.
While the Steelers preseason finale might be meaningless to quite a few players on the team’s 90-man roster, it won’t be for Watson. In fact, being as the Steelers should already know what they have in both Davis and Toussaint at this point, Tomlin should let Conner and Watson get the bulk of the work in the backfield Thursday night against the Panthers. If I were Tomlin, I would work Conner mainly on special teams during the first half against the Panthers and let Watson start the game at running back. In the second half, I would flip-flop the two. In the meantime, Davis can get one final look as a kick returner while Toussaint can sit and let his leg heal.
12 of Watson’s 18 total carries so far during the preseason have been “successful runs” so he deserves a chance to see if he can have that same level of prosperity early in the exhibition finale. It’s obvious that Tomlin has been impressed with Watson so far, as he should be, and thus it’s time to reward the running back with more meaningful carries against the Panthers.