While the majority of Pittsburgh Steelers fans are focused solely on the team’s ability to overcome adversities as they head into the regular season, with Tropical Storm Harvey slamming into the state of Texas and causing a tremendous amount of devastation in its wake, several members of the team have a lot on their minds as they worry about their Texas families.
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Trying to secure a roster spot in the final week of the preseason is a daunting enough task for an on-the-bubble NFL player. Add the distraction of worrying whether loved ones are safe in the storm-ravaged Houston area, and you get an idea of what Steelers Brian Allen and Demarcus Ayers are facing this week.
Allen, the team's fifth-round draft pick, grew up in La Marque, Texas, located about 30 miles south of Houston and near the Gulf of Mexico coastline hit hard by Tropical Storm Harvey. Ayers, a seventh-round selection in 2016, was raised near Dallas but spent four years at the University of Houston.
Both players will be hoping to win spots on the 53-man roster or practice squad after the final preseason game on Thursday night. But they can be forgiven if not all of their attention is on football.
“It's definitely hard,” Ayers said Sunday afternoon. “People throughout that city have helped me grow. I spent the most important years of my life there, so I'm worried. I know my teammates (from Houston) are safe, but in terms of the friends I've made and people I know from growing up, it's mind-boggling not knowing if they are going to be OK.
“I've reached out to several people and haven't gotten responses, so I'm definitely worried and somewhat crushed inside.”
Other Steelers players with ties to the flooded Gulf Coast areas of Texas are running back Knile Davis, who grew up in the Houston suburb of Missouri City; running back Trey Williams, a Houston native, and kicker Chris Boswell, who attended Rice.
Allen said his mother was in Pittsburgh this weekend watching him play in the preseason game on Saturday night against the Indianapolis Colts. His father, sister and grandparents are among family members who live along the Texas Gulf Coast who have been impacted by the devastating storm.
“Just seeing some of those images is hard, and I'm trying to do what I can to make sure everyone down there is comfortable, that my family is comfortable and just stay on top of it,” Allen said. “I called a guy I grew up with from my neighborhood, and his family was evacuated by lifeboat.
“It's a pretty bad situation in my neighborhood. I heard it's even worse in parts of Houston. As far as my family goes, everyone is fine for the time being.”
The absence of Le'Veon Bell throughout training camp has given the Steelers a long look at their stable of running backs.
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 (aka the Nigerian Nightmare).
“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-2 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 Trey 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 a 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.”
That young receiver from Southern California made another nice impression for the Steelers Saturday night, did he not?
Rookie JuJu Smith-Schuster? Well, yes, their second-round draft choice did OK too with three catches for 31 yards around a temporary absence after taking a hit on his knee.
Then there was the other receiver from USC, not quite as heralded — tight end Xavier Grimble. The Steelers scored one touchdown in their 19-15 loss to Indianapolis at Heinz Field and Grimble was the one who caught it, with one hand over a cornerback on a 10-yard pass from Landry Jones.
That was one of three receptions for Grimble and the first time he’s caught a pass or been targeted in a game this preseason. Yet on an offense whose only supposed weak spot is tight end, Grimble, starter Jesse James and old vet David Johnson are trying to correct that impression.
“That’s kind of the tight ends’ role, man,” Grimble said. “We do the dirty work: Pass block, run block, pass protection, try to catch passes, make combat catches. We have an important part in this offense no matter what anybody says. Everybody [on the team] knows they need us to play at a high level so the offense can, you know …”