Sunday notebook: Little man Sproles

PITTSBURGH –The Pittsburgh Steelers will face one of the smallest backs in the NFL this evening when they take on Darren Sproles ...

... The 5-foot-6, 181-pounder will replace LaDainian Tomlinson for the San Diego Chargers today. In a relief role last week against the Indianapolis Colts, Sproles rushed for 105 yards, his second 100-yard game in a row and the third of his four-year career.

Aaron Smith of the Steelers compared Sproles to Warrick Dunn. The only other valid comparison might be Maurice Jones-Drew, who's an inch taller than Sproles and 27 pounds heavier. Jones-Drew played against three of the AFC playoff defenses – Steelers, Ravens, Titans -- and ESPN asked him which was the toughest to run on.

"They all have great guys out there," Jones-Drew said. "We were able to run the ball on a couple of them, but the Steelers were pretty much able to shut us down.

"But I like them all. I think they're great, physical defenses and I really couldn't pick one. If I did, I'd go with the AFC South and say the Tennessee Titans just because they're representing our division."

Jones-Drew rushed for 79 yards on 22 carries in two games against the Titans this season, and 78 yards on 23 carries against the Ravens. Against the Steelers, Jones-Drew was held to 7 yards on 5 carries. ESPN asked Jones-Drew which Steelers defender is the one Sproles should watch out for.

"Well," he said, "you have (Troy) Polamalu in the back and (James) Harrison rushing the passer, but I think the key guy is Aaron Smith, their defensive end. He does a great job of stopping the run on the offensive right side. He's the guy you really have to account for. When we played them, it was hard to run on the right side because he was there making tackles, chasing guys down from the back end. He's the key guy to keep your eye on. He's not heralded but he's hard-working and gets the job done."

CLIFF BRANCH II

Smith was talking about tackling Sproles when the Heinz Field playing surface was mentioned. Willie Parker had said earlier in the week that Sproles wouldn't be able to cut at Heinz Field the way he normally does.

"If you guys want," Smith said, "I can take a shovel out there before the game and make some chunks. I wouldn't mind, especially with that little guy running. It might slow him down a little bit. He's fast."

Smith was reminded about the legends of Cliff Branch, and how the Steelers allegedly iced up the edges of the field before a playoff game to slow the Oakland Raiders' deep threat.

"Can't blame them," Smith said. "Is anybody watching the stadium right now? I could get my rototiller out and tear that field up a little bit."

KICKING GAME EDGES

The Steelers have the NFL's top kickoff coverage team and will be at full strength to stop Sproles, who helped the Chargers rank ninth in kickoff returns. Sproles and the Chargers were eighth in punt-return average while the Steelers' punt-coverage team ranked fourth.

The Chargers will have the edge in punting with Mike Scifres, who downed three punts inside the Colts' 7-yard line last week that led to 17 Chargers points. Scifres averages 45.7 yards per punt, while Mitch Berger of the Steelers averages 41.3.

The Steelers have the edge in placekicking with Jeff Reed, particularly since Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding has missed the last two practices with a groin problem. Kaeding has made only 3 of 8 kicks from 40-49 yards this season. He missed from 42 yards at Heinz Field earlier this season.

ALL-PRO TEAM

Troy Polamalu and James Harrison were named to the Associated Press first-team All-Pro team this week. They are the first teammates to make the first-team defense in seven years.

Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, considered a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame when he retires, was named to his sixth All-Pro team. Dermontti Dawson, who finally reached the finalists round of the Hall of Fame voting this year, is one of only 17 players in NFL history to be named to six consecutive first-team AP All-Pro teams. Fifteen of those 17 players are already in the Hall of Fame, with Dawson and the yet-to-become-eligible Larry Allen the exceptions.

I-FORMATION BLUES

The Steelers' success from the I-formation against the Cleveland Browns brought all kinds of questions about the formation from reporters this week, but the players weren't tipping their hand.

"Those were the only questions I was getting today," Willie Parker said.

What did he say?

"Whatever play they call, whatever formation they call, I'm at your service," Parker said. "I'm not going to complain."

Neither would Carey Davis, who inexplicably lost his job as lead blocker after the first Chargers game.

"I have no idea why," Davis said. "But we're winning games. That's what matters."

The bulked-up Davis got even bigger this off-season after his first year as a pro fullback, and felt his lead blocking had never been better. But the Steelers have used the traditional I-formation – two RBs and one TE – on only four run plays since the Chargers game. The tight ends, Sean McHugh and Heath Miller, did the work for those carries.

"It's the formula that we have and we're winning," Davis said. "Whatever wins games."


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