Running backs look solid again

Heading into the 2004 season, the Steelers felt the running back position would be one of strength. It was a strange idea for a team that had finished near the bottom of the NFL in rushing the season before. But the Steelers felt the addition of Duce Staley, along with what they felt was already a strong stable of backs, would be just what the doctor ordered. Seldom has a team been more right about something.

Staley helped the Steelers re-establish themselves as the preeminent power running team in the NFL. And though Staley missed a good portion of the second half of the season with a hamstring injury, he had more than 700 yards in the team's first seven games, allowing Jerome Bettis to spend most of the first half of the season on the bench. And when Bettis finally got more than a couple of carries per game, he showed he could also still get the job done. Together, they were as good as any one-two punch in the league.

The Steelers hope to get one more good season out of the duo, as Staley is now completely healed from the hamstring injury that limited him in the second half of 2004 and the playoffs.

That's good news for the Steelers, who don't expect another 941 yards and 13 touchdowns out of Bettis, who took a pay cut for the second consecutive year to return for this season, likely his last.

Ideally, the Steelers want to use Staley and Bettis as they did throughout the first half of last season, giving Staley the majority of the carries, with Bettis playing in short-yardage situations.

Whether or not they can both stay healthy throughout the season is the big question.

Also figuring into the mix will be second-year man Willie Parker, who made the team as an undrafted rookie last season. Parker has outstanding speed and could push the enigmatic Verron Haynes out of the third-down packages if he can show better hands as a receiver.

Parker had a 100-yard game in the team's regular season finale last season against Buffalo when the Steelers were resting Staley and Bettis and is the team's first home-run threat.

Haynes has good hands and is a patient runner, but always seems to be nicked up. Last season, it was a knee injury that limited him in several games. Haynes, who also serves as the emergency fullback, is heading into his final contract season and must prove, not only to the Steelers, but to the NFL, that he can stay healthy.

Fullback Dan Kreider was finally recognized for being one of the top blockers in the league last season and really helps establish the physical nature of the Steelers' running game. Kreider is also a solid safety valve receiver.

The Steelers brought in three young running backs as possible replacements for Haynes – Noah Herron, John Kuhn and Zach Tuiasosopo.

Herron, a seventh-round draft pick from Northwestern, and Kuhn, a Shippensburg product, are hybrid-type runners like Haynes, who came to the Steelers as a fullback, but has shown more ability as a runner than he has a blocker.

Both Herron and Kuhn were the primary ballcarriers on their college teams and must show they can pick up the nuances of NFL blocking to have a shot at a roster spot.

Tuiasosopo, meanwhile, a true fullback at the University of Washington, has to show he can do more than just block.

A good preseason by any of those three could push Haynes off the roster, especially if he doesn't stay healthy. But it's more likely they'll be playing for one spot on the practice squad.

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