PITTSBURGH -- Close your eyes and think about Tavon Austin and you'll no doubt envision the former West Virginia Mountaineer rushing for 344 yards and gaining 522 all-purpose yards in a 2012 win over Oklahoma.
Mike Tomlin doesn't need to close his eyes this week. He's seeing Austin on film as the Steelers prepare to tackle him and the St. Louis Rams.
"Tavon Austin will line up at receiver, in the backfield, he'll run the ball, screens, reverses. He's a dangerous guy down the field as well," Tomlin said. "He's being utilized very similarly to how he was utilized in Morgantown. He's a dangerous player, a guy we have to identify and account for just about every time the ball is snapped."
At WVU, the 5-8, 174-pound Austin compiled 7,246 all-purpose yards and 40 touchdowns.
But in his third year with the St. Louis Rams, the former first-round pick has compiled only 74 receptions for 664 yards (9.0)and four touchdowns; 432 rushing yards on 53 carries (8.2 avg.) and four touchdowns; and a punt-return average of 10.8 and three touchdowns. He did return a punt 75 yards for a touchdown to help the Rams defeat the Seattle Seahawks on opening day.
The latter -- the punt returning -- is what the Steelers' special-teams players see when they close their eyes.
"He's super dangerous," said Steelers linebacker Terence Garvin. "He's a really good return man. He finds his lanes."
Garvin, of course, played with Austin and another current Ram, wide receiver Stedman Bailey, for four years at WVU. In fact, Garvin goes back even further with Austin.
"I've known Tavon since high school," Garvin said. "I played against him in high school my sophomore year and junior year and we played in an all-star game together my senior year. He was the truth. On his highlight tape you don't even see him get tackled. And it's like 12 minutes long."
Austin led Dunbar High School of Baltimore, Md., to three consecutive state titles. As a senior he rushed for 2,660 yards (12.2 yards per carry) and left school with state records for career points, touchdowns, total offense and rushing. So when he committed to WVU, Garvin was understandably pleased.
"It definitely helped knowing somebody from back home, so that was cool," Garvin said. "We were roommates my freshman year, so I know him pretty well."
And the most amazing game Garvin's ever seen from this human joystick?
"I've seen Tavon do a lot of amazing things," Garvin said. "That Oklahoma game everybody always remembers, but he had a lot of games like that. I've seen him do a lot of stuff. I've seen him in high school do it. I've seen him in college do it. I see him doing it now. It doesn't surprise you when you see him do it."
But it's not like Austin has picked up from where he left off in Morgantown. As the eighth pick of the 2013 draft, much has been expected of Austin. His single-season highs are 40 receptions, 224 yards rushing and 11.2 per punt return. But just when Rams fans are feeling disappointed, Austin can return a punt 75 yards for a big touchdown as he did two weeks ago.
Of course, teams have been very careful when punting to Austin. This season he's had only one other punt return (10 yards).
"I've seen people punt to him and I've seen people not punt to him," Garvin said. "He's dangerous. He's one of the most special people when he gets the ball, and you never want to see him do it against you, whether it's in a game or practice. I've seen both and I don't want to see it again."
NOTES -- Sitting out of practice Thursday were ILB Ryan Shazier (shoulder), DT Daniel McCullers (knee) and WR Markus Wheaton (chest). Limited were DB Cortez Allen (knee) and DE Cameron Heyward (elbow). ... The Steelers signed WR Tyler Murphy to their practice squad and released WR Isaiah Burse.