Backfield depth becoming a concern

LATROBE – Bill Cowher gave running back Duce Staley the day off yesterday, but the Steelers' coach didn't say whether Staley had ever heard of Wally Pipp. Those who are kind say that Staley has looked ...

... sluggish this camp, or rusty, and that he must continue carrying the football to strip away that rust.

Others feel there may be too much rust for the 31-year-old to overcome. Staley hasn't carried more than 17 times in a game since his 125- yard performance against New England on Halloween of 2004. Since then, he's averaged 3.4 yards per each of his 79 carries, and only 3.1 per carry in his last three appearances.

Much like Willie Mays the New York Met, Staley's weight is up and his average is down. Fresh legs might not get it done, so the Pittsburgh Steelers' depth in the backfield remains dangerously thin.

The Steelers expected rookie Cedric Humes to provide depth, but the seventh-round pick has a thin frame and runs too upright for their inside game. It's an equation for injuries or fumbles or both, and Humes obliged with a goal-line fumble last Saturday in the preseason opener. He'd fumbled twice during end-of-practice team scrimmages and lost six fumbles at Virginia Tech, so he's closing in on strike three.

There's another young back who could provide the Steelers with some punch. He's the camp sleeper, a big, quiet back who wears his position coach's old number – 42.

"I like John Kuhn," said running backs coach Dick Hoak. "He's coachable and gets better every day. He's a tough runner, and if he keeps working to get those pads lower he'll turn into a good blocker, too."

Blocking – in particular lead blocking – is important for Kuhn because it would allow the Steelers to use him at fullback and tailback.

The 255-pounder is the all-time leader rusher at Division II Shippensburg (Pa.) University, where he was a fullback in the wing-T offense. Kuhn signed with the Steelers as a free agent after the 2005 draft, was cut prior to the season, but was signed to the practice squad Nov. 30. He remained with the team through the Super Bowl and is the proud owner of a championship ring.

Kuhn is back this season, and he'd like to be the proud owner of a roster spot. He's faster than Jerome Bettis at the end of his career, and certainly faster than Staley at this point. Whether it's with the practice squad or final roster, Kuhn will be around for awhile.

"Basically it's about getting a year under my belt, getting some playing time, some practice time, getting to understand the offense better and going out there with a clear head," said the York, Pa. native. "Being able to play better mentally allows you to play better physically because you can just go out there and relax. Basically, that's all it is. I feel much better out on the field. I'm not having to think about things two or three times before it comes to me. It's a lot more natural this year."

Kuhn carried two times Saturday for 15 yards. His best run gained 11 yards up the middle in classic Steelers plow-horse fashion. But right now, in classic Steelers plow-horse fashion, Kuhn's more concerned with his blocking.

"I think they really want me to be a fullback, so I want to come in and give them what they want," he said. "Being able to play halfback isn't a bad second option."

What has Hoak taught him about blocking?

"He's taught me how to be more, I guess, more mean, to stay low on my blocks and try and really drive the guys out of the hole and get underneath them rather than just getting in front of the guy and kind of absorbing the block," he said.

"I'll do whatever it takes to be a part of the team. I loved last year, just being on the practice squad and being here. This year I want to do whatever it takes to get on the field."

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