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Old 10-14-2007, 08:42 AM   #1
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Default Running back tandem paying dividends for Steelers

Running back tandem paying dividends for Steelers
By John Harris
Sunday, October 14, 2007

Two running backs aren't necessarily better than one for the Steelers.
Willie Parker leads the NFL in rushing. He's off to the best start of his career and the Steelers are 4-1 entering their bye week.

That makes backup Najeh Davenport a luxury.

Primarily, Davenport provides insurance at a position with a high injury rate -- running backs generally have a short career expectancies. He's also a creative change-of-pace alternative for defenses targeting Parker.

Parker (5-10, 209) scares defenses as a threat to go all the way on every carry. He's expanding his game this season and has become a deceptively tough inside runner.
Davenport (6-1, 247) hammers away at the defense with body blows. But he can bust it outside if need be. He displayed those qualities on a 45-yarder against Seattle, the Steelers' longest run of the season.

Parker's and Davenport's combination of speed and power is what coach Mike Tomlin envisioned during the offseason when he said running back tandems have been duly noted in the copycat NFL.

"The roles are probably starting to define themselves, but we're just kind of letting it happen naturally," Tomlin said. "We're doing what we need to do to win. Willie Parker's our primary ballcarrer. (Davenport) is definitely a legitimate threat when he goes in there."

Parker has carried the ball 121 times for 507 yards (4.2-yard average) and one touchdown. He has four 100-yard games.

At his current rate, Parker will finish the season with 387 carries. Last season, Parker carried the ball 337 times for 1,494 yards (4.4 average) and 13 touchdowns. He had seven 100-yard games in 2006, including a pair of 200-yard performances.

Davenport is the Steelers' second-leading rusher with 209 yards on 28 carries. His whopping 7.5-yard per carry average more than doubles last year's 3.7 average, when he rushed 60 times for 221 yards.

Davenport is averaging 4.5 carries a game. That projects to 89 carries over a full season.

The Steelers are running more this season. They're averaging 35 carries a game, up from 29.3 carries in 2006.

Parker, a Pro Bowl alternate last season, is the feature back. However, Davenport is assuming a more significant role on third-down and goal-line situations. Two of Davenport's three touchdowns were on short runs.

"Teams aren't trying to let me get loose. They're using a 2-gap technique while I'm in there so they can keep me on my p's and q's," Parker said. "When Najeh's in there they go straight at him. Eventually, they're going to get tired. They ain't going to be able to hold up a full game. Over four quarters, we wear teams down. Eventually we'll break through."

"I think that's why they're a little off-balance when they see me coming and when they see Willie coming," Davenport said.

Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith said preparing to face two vastly different running backs in the same game presents a unique set of challenges.

"They're going to run certain plays with different backs. You have to be aware of who you're going to tackle,'' Smith said. "You've got to stand straight-up against Najeh or he's going to truck you over like a pancake. You try to lay into Willie, he's going to shake-and-bake you.''

In keeping up with the Joneses, the Steelers appear to be onto something with their two-back attack.
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