Saturday, November 18, 2006
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In a league where size and speed have increased with regularity, not many teams have resorted to using a 255-pound kick-returner. Such, though, is the case with the Steelers' Najeh Davenport, an unlikely return man who has produced surprisingly good results.
Even Bill Cowher, a former special-teams standout as an NFL player, questions the sanity of those who try to tackle him.
"I know if I was on kickoff-coverage team, to see him catch that ball on a dead run and coming at me, even if I wasn't blocked, I'm sure it's not a real inviting sight," Cowher said.
Apparently not.
Maybe that's why Davenport has emerged as the best and most reliable return man for the Steelers in a season where their special teams have been a disappointment.
Maybe that's why he had returns of 41 and 30 yards against the New Orleans Saints. Or why he was four returns shy of leading the NFL in kick returns in 2003 with the Green Bay Packers.
"A lot of guys on special teams, especially on the kickoff team, they taught them to run full speed, to run through the hit," Davenport said. "But you can see some of those guys slowing up. When they slow up, that helps me out a little more. They start trying to arm tackle."
Who can blame them?
At 255 pounds, and still with some of the 4.35 speed he had at the University of Miami, Davenport creates enough kinetic energy to probably power "Light-Up Night" by himself.
He does not have the elusiveness or jitterbug style of the kick-returner the Steelers (3-6) will try to stop tomorrow in Cleveland -- Josh Cribbs, who is fourth in the AFC with a 26.8 yard average. But he runs with the straight-ahead focus -- and, perhaps, momentum -- of a steam engine, never veering off course and always powering forward.
"Once I can go north and south running ..." Davenport said.
It sounded like a warning, and maybe so.
Davenport is not going to provide many, if any, touchdowns with his style.
After all, he doesn't have a return for touchdown in five seasons in the NFL.
But he has uncanny ability to provide enough 30-something returns to make him valuable, if not productive. That's what he provided a couple years ago with the Green Bay Packers. And what he has provided for the Steelers.
"He's a big guy," Cowher said. "He's got deceiving speed. I like the way he plays the game. He's a tough guy and a physical player. He'll do whatever you ask him to do, whether it's to cover a kick, return a kick, play third down, block, or carry the football. He's been a great addition to this team."
Davenport's returns will not find their way to the opening segment of "SportsCenter" -- unless, of course, it involves a cover man being pancaked.
But, in 2003, he had returns of 45, 56, 57 and 60 in the final seven games for the Packers. He averaged 31.8 yards on 16 returns, which was four returns shy of the league minimum for statistical leaders. Otherwise, he would have led the NFL in kick-return average.
"I was maybe four returns short of going to the Pro Bowl," Davenport said.
Despite his size, Davenport seemingly has a knack for producing big plays.
The first time he touched the ball after being signed by the Steelers Sept. 8 after being cut by the Packers, he took a screen pass 32 yards against the San Diego Chargers, flattening safety Terrance Kiel with a stiff-arm. The following week, he had a 48-yard run against the Kansas City Chiefs, which was the longest run from scrimmage until Willie Parker went 72 and 76 yards against the New Orleans Saints Sunday.
Now, with Verron Haynes on injured reserve with season-ending knee surgery, Davenport has assumed the role of third-down back in the Steelers' offense.
It did not start off well -- he forgot to chip-block on Denver defensive end Elvis Dumervil on his first third-down play, resulting in a sack -- but Davenport has more than atoned.
He has four carries for 20 yards and six catches for 61 yards in the past two games. Against the Saints, he probably would have had a 51-yard touchdown on a screen pass in the fourth quarter, but he didn't see defensive end Charles Grant come from behind and trip him up after a 4-yard gain.
"I saw I had two blockers in front of me and like 30 yards of open field, and soon as I got to running I felt myself falling," Davenport said. "I was tripped. I didn't see him. If I had seen him, it would have been easy."
Perhaps. But it's never easy for defenders when they see Najeh Davenport coming.