Steelers' Davenport feeling more comfortable

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette"It was like a clean slate: Every Sunday, you erase. Come back every Monday and learn new stuff," says Najeh Davenport, seen here last season when he signed with the Steelers the day after the start of 2006 play.

The way Najeh Davenport measures it, a football player is only as fast as his field intelligence, his grasp of the game plan, his comprehension of the playbook.

And, man, he feels his brain synapse at 4.4, 4.5 speed nowadays.

It's a completely different Steelers state of mind from last fall.

"He had to learn everything on the run last year," new Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians recalled of the backup running back, who was signed the day after the team's 2006 season opener. "It was really game plan to game plan. Now he's learning the nuances of the offense."

"It was like a clean slate: Every Sunday, you erase. Come back every Monday and learn new stuff," said Davenport.

He laughed yesterday, amid the second week of organized team activity on the South Side, about his personal acuity change the past five months or so. "Now you don't have to think about stuff, go over plays in your head, go crazy with reads: the safety...," he continued. "You aren't thinking about it."

Suddenly, it's all reaction time.

Such as the 20-yard-plus romp down the left sideline toward the end of team drills yesterday. Davenport felt so good, so comfortable, that he quickly flashed his a straight arm toward the helmet of oncoming safety Anthony Smith as if to say: I got you now.

"I was just finishing off, showing him that I saw him and that was what he was going get," Davenport said with a grin. "I don't think he knew that I saw him. Sort of surprised him. Now he realizes."

It's the brand of Davenport moment that causes Arians to remark about the alteration, the assimilation, in the player who used to capably back up Ahman Green in Green Bay: "He looks explosive."

Before anyone prematurely closes the competition for The Next Jerome Bettis, that burly back to complement fast Willie Parker -- it is still May, after all -- Davenport merely presents an option that may be overlooked. He was a last-ditch pickup one game into the 2006 season, a longtime Packers backup coming off a broken ankle the October before and a newcomer to the Steelers' system. After all, as he put it, he spent so much time in the West Coast offense, he felt the protection scheme was something "you learned since you were knee-high." The Steelers' way, even down to their numbering system, was so foreign that this five-year veteran admittedly lost focus.

Perhaps that renders slightly even more remarkable the statistics he was able to compile as Parker's top backup, once Verron Haynes' season ended with a knee injury against Oakland. Davenport finished with 221 yards rushing on 60 carries for a 3.7-yard average. He amassed 15 catches for 193 yards and a 12.9-yard average that ranked behind Nate Washington (17.8), Santonio Holmes (16.8), Hines Ward (13.6) and Cedric Wilson (13.2) among regular Steelers receivers. Moreover, his receiving yardage was only 29 yards fewer than Parker, and on half as many catches. Finally, his 20 kickoff returns topped the team and his 430 return yards (for a 21.5-yard average) were only 6 fewer on two more returns than Holmes.

In short, he was productive while cramming for weekly quizzes last year. Imagine how he might perform understanding everything on the exam.

It's a constant study, too: "I'm definitely getting these OTAs in," Davenport said. This from a 6-foot-1, 247-pound worker who spent one offseason shedding 20 pounds via pickup basketball and Jenny Craig.

The arrival of veteran Kevan Barlow, the seven-year veteran from Pitt and Peabody signed as a free agent three weeks ago, merely means to Davenport more competition. Especially at a running back spot where the rehabilitating Haynes could be re-signed and return by next fall.

"I think the more the better," Davenport said. "We sit down and talk as running backs, and I tell them about when I was in college [at Miami]. We didn't have a lot of balls to go around, not even a lot of reps. I think in college, we'd have a two-hour practice, and I'd get maybe 15 reps the whole practice. We had guys like Edgerrin James, James Jackson, Willis McGahee, Clinton Portis, Frank Gore. ... Everybody was trying to get snaps. So you got guys running scout offense. In my case, I played fullback to get on the field."

Return kicks. Catch swing passes from the backfield. Contribute, concentrate, comprehend. It's simplistic, but it's the same path Davenport followed to success in Green Bay, starting just two of 39 games -- rushing for 178 yards on 19 carries in a 2004 Monday night telecast against St. Louis, and scoring two touchdowns before breaking an ankle against New Orleans in 2005.

He started to show similar signs late last season, when he subbed for Parker and rushed on three consecutive plays for 27 yards against Cincinnati, when he scored on a first-quarter pass against Carolina, when he combined for 83 yards rushing and receiving against Cleveland. That was a marginally different offense, under a different head coach, with a radically scattered Steelers-system mind-set under Davenport's helmet.

Nowadays, he said, "you know what's coming. You know everything. You ain't got to think about it."


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.


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