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|01-11-2009, 09:17 AM||#1|
A Son of Martha
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Chargers' Darren Sproles, at 5-6, takes on big, bad Steelers defense
Chargers' Darren Sproles, at 5-6, takes on big, bad Steelers defense
By RICH CIMINI
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Sunday, January 11th 2009, 12:37 AM
PITTSBURGH - The smallest running back will face the biggest, baddest defense in the land Sunday at Heinz Field. It'll be 11 Mutts chasing one Jeff, the Steelers against the Chargers' Darren Sproles, who, at 5-6, could star in a new TV show: "Are You Shorter than a Fifth-Grader?"
Small, but lethal.
"He fits into some holes I don't think my children could fit into," Steelers linebacker Ryan Clark said.
With LaDainian Tomlinson (groin) expected to miss the divisional playoff game, Sproles will be the featured back for the surging Chargers, who have won five straight after a horrible 4-8 start. Sproles has rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the last two games, spelling the banged-up Tomlinson, but that was against the defensively challenged Broncos and Colts.
The Steelers belong in a different league. They finished No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 in pass defense and No. 2 in run defense, coming within 54 rushing yards of being the first team since the 1991 Eagles to capture the triple crown. Of all the great defensive teams in Pittsburgh's storied history, this has a chance to be remembered among the best. Naturally, a championship would help cement its legacy.
Statistically, if not in reputation (yet), the Steelers are right up there with the 2000 Ravens and the 1985 Bears. The Steelers allowed only 3.897 yards per play, narrowly missing the all-time mark for a 16-game season (3.890) set by the '79 Bucs.
Speaking of fractions, Sproles, the shortest non-kicker in the NFL, poses some unique problems for the Steelers. Because of his remarkable elusiveness and speed, he's a third-down threat on draws and screens. But he's a well-built 181 pounds, so he can run between the tackles, too.
"I think he showed last week he can do it all," Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said.
In San Diego's wild-card victory over the Colts, Sproles dominated the game, lifting the Chargers when Tomlinson was forced to the bench early in the game. Sproles gained the third-most combined yards in playoff history, totaling 328 in rushing, receiving, punt returning and kickoff returning. The final 22 yards came on his game-winning touchdown run in overtime.
All told, Sproles, an unrestricted free agent after the season, touched the ball 34 times. To say he was exhausted would be an understatement.
"We'll pack him in ice in the training room, and we'll let him out on Friday," coach Norv Turner joked after the game.
Sproles, in his fourth year out of Kansas State, has emerged as one of the darlings of the postseason - everybody loves the little guy - but it'll be interesting to see how the increased workload will affect him against a defense that never takes a break.
No team knows that better than the Chargers, who managed only 213 total yards in an 11-10 loss in Pittsburgh on Nov. 16. Rivers suffered his worst game, throwing two interceptions and recording a season-low 44.4 passer rating. Linebacker James Harrison was a one-man demolition crew, with one sack, a safety and a 33-yard interception return.
"I think we make a lot of quarterbacks have bad days," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Hopefully, we can create that kind of environment for him (Sunday)."
Said Rivers: "No question, that was the best defense we faced all year."
Sproles was a non-factor that day, with only one rush and one reception for a total of nine yards, so he could be the X-factor in Sunday's rematch. On second thought, let's call him the x-factor, small x.
No matter how many yards he produces, Sproles knows there will always be skeptics, people questioning whether he can be an every-down back.
"Some people don't think I can do it still," he said. "That's the way it's always going to be, I think."
PLAYBOOK: Chargers vs. Steelers at Heinz Field, 4:30 p.m.
BY HANK GOLA
THE LINE: Steelers by 6
TV: Ch. 2 (Jim Nantz, Phil Simms)
RADIO: WFAN-660 AM (Ian Eagle, Dennis Green).
FORECAST: Possible snow showers and temperatures around 20.
RB LaDainian Tomlinson tore a tendon in his groin and is doubtful. Darren Sproles was spectacular in his place last week, and will be spelled by Michael Bennett, who was waived by the Bucs in midseason. TE Antonio Gates (ankle, Achilles) will play even after missing the entire week of practice. Kicker Nate Kaeding is nursing a sore groin. QB Ben Roethlisberger plays for the first time since sustaining a concussion in the season finale. James Harrison, the Defensive Player of the Year, returns after resting a sore hip in the regular-season finale.
Chargers OTs Marcus McNeill and Jeromey Clary vs. Steelers OLBs James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley: Philip Rivers has been dynamic down the stretch, and with LT gone, it's his offense now. But his worst game came when the Steelers turned up the pressure, sacking him twice, forcing a pair of picks and one fumble in the end zone. The Steeler duo combined for 27.5 sacks in the regular season and has favorable matchups on both sides. McNeill struggled against Dwight Freeney last week and will find it hard matching Harrison's power and leverage.
Steelers C Justin Hartwig vs. NT Jamal Williams: Hartwig has a real chore on his hands. Space-eater Williams didn't budge against the Colts, and that allowed LB Stephen Cooper to make plays. Although the Steelers are no longer the power running team they were under Bill Cowher, it's still in their DNA, and they can't afford to have Roethlisberger dropping back too often in his condition. Willie Parker (115 yards rushing in the first game) is finally healthy and will be a workhorse.
"The Chargers must get something out of their running game on early downs or face the consequences. But as good as Sproles has been, he looked very tired after carrying the load last week and will have problems hitting up in there against this (No. 2 rushing) defense, particularly if the field is sloppy. Look for Roethlisberger (just one TD pass in three games vs. Chargers) to attack the weak middle of San Diego's defense. Hines Ward had a big day (11 catches) running crossing routes in the first game. The Steelers don't protect Roethlisberger very well and will have to pay extra attention to Shaun Phillips."
This is the rematch of the 11-10 regular-season Steeler win, in which Pittsburgh was robbed of seven late points on a blown call by the officials on the final play of the game. While the game — played in snowy conditions that are also expected today — was close, the Steelers outgained the Chargers, 2-1, but killed themselves with 13 penalties. The Chargers are just 0-13 in the regular season in Pittsburgh, but 2-0 in the playoffs.
STEELERS, 23-13. Defense, defense, defense.
|01-11-2009, 10:14 AM||#2|
Join Date: Dec 2006
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Re: Chargers' Darren Sproles, at 5-6, takes on big, bad Steelers defense
In memory of my brother Michael, who gave me my love of sports. I will miss you!
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