If it wasn’t evident why the Saints were interested in drafting him just a few months ago, rookie Browns running back Terrance West made it abundantly clear one of the first times he touched the ball at Pittsburgh in Week 1.
West ran around the right end of his offensive line after taking the handoff and swiftly cut to the left and the inside of veteran Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons, who only got his right glove on the Browns rookie motorcycling by. West then plowed through an arm tackle by Steelers rookie and first-round draft choice Ryan Shazier, seized a chance to slice horizontally across the middle of the field, barged through an arm tackle from cornerback Ike Taylor, outran safety Marvin Mitchell and was dragged to the ground by linebacker Jarvis Jones after a 22-yard gain.
The scary thing is, it wasn’t even the longest run of West’s NFL debut. But it laid bare the blend of power, quickness and vision the Saints’ run defenders will need to grapple with when they travel to FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland on Sunday and encounter West, once a prospect they rated highly and now a young pro who could make them pay if they don’t gang up on him in their attempts to stop him.
“On his film, he had a combination of it all: He eluded a couple of defenders, and he ran through some guys,” said the Saints’ David Hawthorne, who along with teammate Curtis Lofton logs the most snaps in run defense among New Orleans’ linebackers. “He kind of came with that total package from what we saw, so we’ll definitely have to prepare for him being a jack of all trades.”
Saints coach Sean Payton this week remembered first learning about West watching him represent Towson University in a Football Championship Subdivision postseason semifinal in December. Towson was playing at Payton’s alma mater, Eastern Illinois, that snowy night; and the Saints coach watched West score five touchdowns while setting an FCS playoff record for rushing yards with an astonishing 354 as he powered his team to a 49-39 victory.
West’s time at Towson soon ended with a loss to North Dakota State in the national title game — but not before he established FCS records for career rushing yards (2,509) and rushing touchdowns (41) while starring at a program he joined because he didn’t qualify academically for larger schools.
Unsurprisingly, when West subsequently had his pre-draft Pro Day, New Orleans sent multiple representatives to the workout at Towson, where Saints linebackers coach Joe Vitt and former left tackle Jermon Bushrod went to school.
The Saints scouts gave West good marks. But a team content with its corps of running backs in Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Khiry Robinson and Travaris Cadet used its first two 2014 draft selections on receiver Brandin Cooks and cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste; and the Browns chose West in the third round, before the Saints picked again.
“He was like any player we graded well,” Payton said. “It was ... understanding who he was, (even if) it didn’t come down to us deciding if we were going to select him.”
With the Browns, West was positioned under veteran running back Ben Tate, all the way through the start of their opener at Pittsburgh. But then Tate sprained a knee at the end of a 25-yard run in the second quarter (he’s been ruled out for the Saints game Sunday).
Cleveland subbed in West. They fed him the ball 16 times — and, in response, he delivered 100 yards.
By no means were all of the Browns’ running plays that involved West impressive. He failed to pick up more than three yards on eight occasions — on one of those he barely returned to the line of scrimmage, and on another he lost a pair of yards.
Yet he dazzled at moments. There was a second-and-9 where the Browns pitched the ball to West, and fullback Ray Agnew fell in an effort to place a lead block on Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds.
Six yards behind the line of scrimmage, West faked left to unbalance Worilds. He then hopped a step back as the Steeler flailed at West’s legs. Worilds whiffed, and West ran right for a 5-yard gain, setting up a much more manageable third down.
That wasn’t as flashy as his 22-yard scamper. But even the 22-yarder didn’t measure up to his best rush: a gain of 29 in which he burst through a hole in the line, navigated traffic, forged through an arm tackle and was met by Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen.
Allen tried to wrap his arms around West, but the Browns rookie shed the defender’s embrace for more yardage. Finally, Mitchell launched his body in front of West, who drove the Steelers safety into the grass before being wrestled down.
Ultimately, Cleveland lost 30-27 to Pittsburgh, which is 1-1 after a 26-6 defeat at Baltimore (1-1) on Thursday. But West did help Cleveland score 24 unanswered points to tie up what had been a 27-3 halftime deficit early in the fourth quarter before the Steelers vanquished the Browns on a late field goal.
And, with Tate’s scratch Sunday, West has also got the Saints on notice that perhaps the key to recovering from their season-opening loss at Atlanta on Sept. 14 will be containing him.
“He’s a guy that you’ve got to wrap up ... because he’ll bounce off and keep going,” Lofton said. “He’s definitely going to be a challenge for this defense.”