Why's everyone worried about Duce?

After showing up for training camp in less than peak condition, running back Duce Staley has yet to shake off the rust and return to form. Blogger Ryan Wilson thinks it's not as big a deal as some are making it out to be.

The Pittsburgh Steelers are eight days away from the regular season and in a sea of uncertainty, there's one undeniable truth: Running back depth is a really big concern. Sure, Willie Parker is entrenched as the starter – and well he should be – but after that, who knows how things might shake out.

Verron Haynes is making a push for the No. 2 job behind Parker but Duce Staley's bid to replace the Bus has, to date, only included gaining a ton of weight (literally). Rookie seventh-rounder Cedric Humes hasn't done much to distinguish himself and things are so seemingly dire that former Shippensburg star John Kuhn is getting serious consideration for a final roster spot, at least on the ol' message board. Luckily, fans don't have input on the 53-man roster, but that we're even discussing it should tell you something about the state of the running game as the preseason winds down.

But maybe things aren't as bad as they seem. Let's play a little game called Guess Who? Take a look at these two stat lines:

          ATT    YDS   TD   LG   AVG
Player 1:  9     26    0    8    2.9
Player 2: 12     25    0    6    2.1
Neither of these performances will garner a mention in a Hall of Fame conversation, but does anybody want to take a guess at these two mystery backs?

(Jeopardy theme music)

Alrighty, put down your pens and let's see your answer.

           ATT    YDS   TD   LG   AVG
J. Bettis:  9     26    0    8    2.9
D. Staley: 12     25    0    6    2.1
If you've been paying attention at all this preseason, Staley's numbers (through the first two preseason games) should look familiar, but Jerome Bettis's numbers from the 2005 preseason are eerily similar. A year ago there was virtually no discussion of Bettis being too washed up for the short-yardage role and this was after Staley was already out with a knee injury. Once Bettis went down with a an injury of his own during the third preseason game, Cowher had to name then-unproven Willie Parker the starter, Verron Haynes the backup, and Noah Herron the "Oh Crap, we're screwed" third-stringer.

One reason why the media wasn't focused specifically on the running back situation a year ago was because after three preseason games the Steelers had yet score an offensive touchdown. But now, 12 months and a motorcycle accident later, Ben Roethlisberger looks better than ever, the young wideouts are having solid camps and the only real issues on the offensive side of the ball is the depth at running back.

And, for as much grief as Bettis took for being chubby, he never lost his Fred-Flinstone-at-the-bowling-alley twinkly toes. He was always able to hit the hole quickly; always able to make that one cut allowing him to get a few more yards. On the other hand, Staley looks like he's wearing a fat suit and runs like he's pulling a blocking sled. Bettis's ability to juggle thousands of calories without sacrificing any of his nimbleness is a testament to his long career and his eventual Hall of Fame enshrinement.

Let's assume that the Bus/Duce similarities end with their respective preseason output. And for the sake of argument, let's also say that Staley has graduated to sumo wrestler from feature back and skipped right over short-yardage specialist. For all intents and purposes, stick a fork in him – he's done. Does this radically alter the Steelers' season? Are they destined for a repeat of 2003, when they mustered six measly wins? Will the offense implode without any semblance of a running game?

The short answer? Nope.

I'll explain more below, but first, let me put this question out there:

Don't you think the front office was well aware of the potential running backs issues well before we were? I mean, they did try to work a draft-day trade for T.J. Duckett but found the Falcons' asking price too steep. If anything, give the organization credit for not overpaying for what basically amounted to a glorified backup. Leave that kind of wheelin' and dealin' to the real professionals: The Washington Redksins.

After the Duckett deal fell through, one might wonder why the Steelers didn't take a running back earlier than the seventh round of the draft. That's a fair question. My guess is that the front office had identified more pressing needs and that's why they made the selections when they did. And before you argue that the team would've been wise to take a running back earlier than the seventh round, here's another question for you: Which player, exactly, should the team have taken?

Here's the list of available guys the Steelers could've drafted if they had used a second-day pick on a running back: P. J. Daniels (5'10" 214), Jerome Harrison (5'9" 209), Wali Lundy (5'10" 214), J.D. Runnels (5'11" 240), Cedric Humes (6'1" 227) and Quinton Ganther (5'10" 218). Only Runnels is "short-yardage size" and I'd never heard of him until I put this list together. Sure, Wali Lundy is having a good preseason, but I don't remember anyone pimping him in the run up to the draft.

So yeah, the coaching staff probably has some legitimate issues with the current state of the running game, but there are a few reasons not to be too worried (at least not yet):

First, if some combination of Willie Parker, Verron Haynes and mystery guests No. 3 or No. 4 (assuming Staley, Humes and Kuhn are fighting for the last two spots) can stay healthy for most of the season, the running back situation is a non-issue. Okay, proclaiming that to be successful the Steelers only needs to avoid injuries is kinda like saying Jon Dekker would be a perennial Pro Bowler if he could just avoid dropping every pass, missing every block, and generally looking lost on the field. But hey, it could happen – the part about avoiding injuries – and it's a lot more probable than Dekker ever catching another pass. Okay, I can see you're not buying it. Moving on …

Next, as Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders so pithily put it in an online chat when asked for a quick primer of his sites' basic research findings, "You run when you win, not win when you run," and equally as important for our discussion here, "Rushing is more dependent on the offensive line than people realize, but pass protection is more dependent on the QB himself than people realize." Both of these issues directly concern the Steelers (I'll discuss the first assertion here and the second one below).

Running teams aren't always winning teams and just because two events are correlated we shouldn't assume there is also a causal relationship. Of course Pittsburgh is best known for a punch-'em-in-the-mouth-style running attack, but just because the offensive dynamics are changing doesn't mean the team is destined for a string of losing seasons.

Finally, I wrote during the Minnesota preseason game that Pittsburgh's first-team offense showed similarities to a well-oiled Tom Brady-led offense. Ben Roethlisberger flawlessly executed the quick hitches, statue of liberty running plays, the three-step-drop-and-throws, and the no-huddle in a way we haven't seen in Pittsburgh … well, ever. (And yes, I know, Bill Belichick didn't invent this offense, but he and Brady damn-near perfected it the past few seasons.)

The upside to this kind of game plan is that it's not so run-dependent. Creating mismatches based on what the defense shows at the line of scrimmage alleviates some of the problems an offense faces when it doesn't have a reliable running attack. Want further proof? Okey doke, you asked for it. Below is a table of team performance, by rank:

Year  Team  Pass  Run  TotOff  TotDef  Finish
2001   NE     11   18      14      13    1st
2003   NE     10   24      14       2    1st
2004   NE      2    4       4       6    1st
2005   NE      3   17       7      27    3rd

2001 PIT 4 7 4 8 3rd 2002 PIT 9 16 14 9 8th 2004 PIT 8 8 8 3 3rd 2005 PIT 5 10 8 2 1st

This table shows the Super Bowl/playoff seasons for the Patriots broken down by league rankings and year. (For comparison, I also included the Steelers; the rankings are from Football Outsiders.)

Notice anything peculiar about New England? In three of their past four playoff seasons, the running game has been absolutely dreadful. The team addressed the problem in 2004 when they acquired Corey Dillon, and again this off-season when they drafted Laurence Maroney, but the Pats also managed to win two Super Bowls in three years with guys named Antowain Smith, J.R. Redmond and Mike Cloud in the backfield.

Given Belichick's boundless wisdom, the lack of backfield depth certainly didn't surprise him – it was probably something he preferred to avoid – and consequently, he game planned around it. Same deal with Bill Cowher and Ken Whisenhunt. They know the situation. Whisenhunt's a smart guy, he understands the strengths and weaknesses of this Steelers offense, and he'll adjust accordingly.

But somebody could make a claim that the Steelers' offensive line has underachieved thus far and there are only so many hits Roethlisberger can take and still remain lucid.

Two things: First, yes, the o-line has been sluggish, but I think their uneven start has more to do with reps than five guys' careers' simultaneously spiraling out of control into the crapper. But that's just me. Also, if Staley somehow manages to avoid Mr. Turk in the coming week, he could benefit from more consistent line play. (Look, I realize the front five don't collectively morph into Ann Sullivan, but Staley can't get any worse, can he?)

Second, Roethlisberger took a lot of hits in last year's more run-oriented scheme. There's no reason to think that with quicker reads and the no-huddle he'll be subject to much more punishment. In fact, it actually might make things a little easier for him. Take a look at this:

Year Team SackRnk  TotSacks AdjSacks
2003   NE   12        32      5.4%
2004   NE    5        26      4.8%
2005   NE    6        28      4.7%

2002 PIT 14 35 6.0% 2004 PIT 28 36 8.9% 2005 PIT 23 32 7.7%

This table compares the sack rates of the Patriots to the Steelers and one of the first things you notice is how efficient the Patriots were at keeping Brady upright. (In 2005, for example, the Pats' o-line was the sixth best in the league in sacks allowed; the Steelers were 10th worst.) Obviously, some of that has to do with personnel, but a lot of it has to do with the scheme, and as I mentioned above, the quarterback. Roethlisberger has improved every year he's been in the league and there's no reason to think he won't also improve on his sack totals, as much as that is in his control.

Given the precarious running back situation, if we're willing to concede the Steelers will have a more pass-oriented, Tom Brady-inspired get-the-ball-out-quickly offense in 2006, Roethlisberger take-downs could even decrease.

We've already seen glimpses of this makeover-in-progress with the handful of first-team offensive plays so far this preseason. Sure, running back depth is a concern; I just don't think it's as big as we're making it out to be.

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