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Old 09-24-2008, 04:04 AM   #1
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Default Mendenhall, Hoke take starters spots

Mendenhall, Hoke take starters spots
By Scott Brown
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Willie Parker talked last week about NFL players never feeling 100 percent during a season. Asked what percentage he is when the bumps and bruises have started to add up, the Steelers' running back said, "You have to ask me that in the middle of the season."

Parker smiled and added, "and then I'm probably going to lie to you anyway."

The two-time Pro Bowler did not lie to reporters following the Steelers' 15-6 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday. Parker did hide the knee injury that will sideline him for the Steelers' game against the Baltimore Ravens and possibly longer.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Parker hurt his left knee near the end of the Eagles game, and the team confirmed that he has a sprained knee. No less significant is the groin strain that also will sideline nose tackle Casey Hampton for Monday's 8:30 p.m. game at Heinz Field.

Tomlin said Hampton and Parker are "week to week."

The loss of Parker only adds to the difficulty the Steelers will face in establishing the run against the Ravens, who are yielding just 71.5 rushing yards a game. Rookie Rashard Mendenhall will take over as the Steelers' primary ball-carrier. He has played sparingly in the first three games.

Mendenhall, in fact, has not carried the ball in the Steelers' last two games, though Tomlin said that was "purely situational" and had nothing to do with a lack of progress on the part of the first-round draft pick.

"Rashard is ready," Tomlin said of Mendenhall, who has rushed for 29 yards on 10 carries. "He's talented and he's been practicing well. I know our team is excited to see what he's capable of doing. What better way to start than on 'Monday Night Football', playing against the Baltimore Ravens?"

Third-down back Mewelde Moore and fullback Carey Davis also could get some carries. Tomlin did not give any indication that the Steelers will use a running-back-by-committee approach to replace Parker.

Asked if Parker, who broke his lower right leg last December, may be out for longer than one game, Tomlin said, "I'm not ready to say that."

If the Steelers' ability to run the ball has been compromised by injury, so has their ability to stop it.

Hampton is a premier run stuffer and is one of the linchpins of the Steelers' 3-4 defense. The Steelers are fortunate that they have an experienced veteran in Chris Hoke to step in for the five-time Pro Bowler. The 6-foot-2, 305-pound Hoke has started 12 games during his career and performed well in the past when he has played in place of Hampton.

The 6-foot-1, 325-pound Hampton missed the first two weeks of training camp after Tomlin put him on the physically unable to perform list for reporting to it grossly out of shape.

Tomlin said he does not think Hampton's physical conditioning had anything to do with the groin strain he sustained against the Eagles. His more immediate concern is what the Steelers do if they suffer another injury along the defensive line.

They are stretched thin enough that Travis Kirschke, who will start again at right defensive tackle for Brett Keisel (calf strain), will serve as Hoke's backup at nose tackle.

"We expect those guys to step up and deliver for us," Tomlin said of the Steelers' reserve defensive linemen, "and we know they will."

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