Backs from golden '08 class square off

Game Day Notebook looks at Mendenhall, Stewart, Kemoeatu, Fox, and more.

PITTSBURGH – Getting a running back out of the 2008 draft is almost like striking quarterback gold in the 1983 draft. At least that's the way the '08 backs are performing this season.

After 14 games, six of the backs from the class of 2008 have over 1,000 yards this season.

Rashard Mendenhall of the Steelers is third with 1,173 yards behind leader Jamaal Charles (1,303) of the Kansas City Chiefs, and Chris Johnson (1,267) of the Tennessee Titans.

Behind Mendenhall are Peyton Hillis (1,129) of the Cleveland Browns, Darren McFadden (1,112) of the Oakland Raiders, and Ray Rice (1,051) of the Baltimore Ravens.

Five other backs from that class have more than 600 yards this season: Matt Forte (865), Tim Hightower (683), Jonathan Stewart (668), Felix Jones (642) and Ryan Torain (616).

Stewart and Mendenhall square off tonight, and the two just as easily could've been on the other teams had the draft experts been right. As it was, the Steelers truly were surprised to see Mendenhall slip to them at pick 23. They'd brought Stewart in for a visit before the draft, but he was picked 13th.

"Coach Tomlin, he's a real good coach," Stewart said. "I liked him. He was one of my favorites coming out of the draft. Just the place and everything, the history behind the organization, just always growing up watching them play the big games, just being able to have the experience of him being on the visit for a potential opportunity to play for him, it was pretty cool."

Stewart has gained 2,637 yards at a 4.8 clip in his three seasons, while Mendenhall, who was injured most of his rookie season, has 2,339 career yards at a 4.2 clip.

Both runners come in tonight off big games. Stewart rushed for a season-high 137 yards on 27 carries, while Mendenhall hit 100 on only 17 carries.

Mendenhall hasn't carried 20 times in one game since carrying a career-high 36 times Nov. 28 against Buffalo.

He feels the Steelers are trying to keep him fresh for the homestretch.

"A little bit," he said, "but last game we had some two-minutes. Except for that we have a rotation that's going on, depending on what we're trying to do that series. So it's a combination of things.

"But I feel pretty good. It's late in the season, so I've been taking care of my body and I feel pretty good. What helps too is that when I'm not getting carries, I'm not in the game, whether it's third down or just a lot of extra plays, so I have a lot of carries but not a lot of plays."

THURSDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL

The Steelers are playing their 12th Thursday night game and are an uninspiring 6-5 overall.

But that number has surged of late. The Steelers have won five of their last six such games, with the loss coming late last season at Cleveland.

The Steelers are 4-1 at home on Thursday nights.

"I think it's a little bit easier," James Farrior said of playing at home. "You don't have to worry about getting on the plane, getting on the bus. You're at home, at your most comfortable place. I think it makes it a little easier."

BIG JUICY SMILING

Chris Kemoeatu, nicknamed "Big Juicy" because of his resemblance to the Mr. Kool-Aid pitcher, said that last Sunday was his best game yet because the big pulling guard is feeling healthy for the first time.

"That was the healthiest I've been in a long time," said Kemoeatu, who's battled knee and ankle injuries this season, sometimes simultaneously.

"I got hurt in Cincinnati and I sat out the Patriots game and came back the next week (against Oakland). That game was the most difficult. But the last two weeks I feel like I've had my healthiest games.

"It's not just that, though. It was fun playing last week. We were communicating so well. In order for everything to work, everybody's got to be one, and I thought everybody did a great job preparing – mentally and physically. And since it was late in the season, it was a good sign for things to come."

CLOCK TICKING ON FOX

Panthers coach John Fox is in the final year of his contract and most expect him to be fired following the season. Fox has always been respected in Pittsburgh for his ability and class after stints with Pitt (1986-88) and the Steelers (1989-91) as a secondary coach.

Fox still has two weeks left with George Stewart (Vikings) and Tom Moore (Colts) as the only former Chuck Noll assistants still coaching in the NFL.

"I think he's the greatest guy I've ever been around," Fox said of Noll. "He is very calm, very technique and fundamental-oriented. He is not a screamer. He wasn't up or down. I think his biggest thing is that he was the same guy every day. He was not an ego guy like, ‘Look at what I'm doing.' I thought he was a great mentor."

Fox said he's not worried about his apparent lame-duck status.

"This game is only fun when you win," he said. "We obviously have not gotten to do that as many times as we would like, so I don't worry about finding employment in the NFL. But this has been a tough season just because of the losses."

INJURY REPORT

The Steelers list three players as out: SS Troy Polamalu (ankle), DE Aaron Smith (triceps) and reserve WR Arnaz Battle.

Ryan Mundy will again replace Polamalu while Ziggy Hood will continue as Smith's replacement.

Listed out for the Panthers is starting FB Tony Fiammetta (ankle). Doubtful is CB Chris Gamble (ankle), and questionable is DE Tyler Brayton (hip).

If Gamble can't play, second-year man Captain Munnerlyn will step in at CB, and if Brayton can't play the Panthers will start rookie Greg Hardy at DE.


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