Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker (leg) rushed the ball just one time against the St. Louis Rams in Week 16's opening game, a logjam to the right side of the field, before he left the game with a lower leg injury. It was revealed later in the game Parker had suffered a fractured fibula and, later, that the NFL's leading rusher would miss the rest of the season.
Parker's 1,317 rushing yards coming into the game led the NFL, only six yards ahead of San Diego Chargers star running back LaDainian Tomlinson. "Fast Willie," as he is often referred to as, will not be able to capture the rushing crown this year. Parker rushed for only two touchdowns this season. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry, chipped in 23 receptions for 164 yards and lost three fumbles on the year.
Filling in for Parker against the Rams was veteran running back Najeh Davenport. The former Green Bay Packer toted the ball 24 times for 123 yards (5.1 yards per carry), scoring once on the ground and once through the air on the night. He caught two passes for 44 yards.
A versatile back with more a bruising style than that of Parker, Davenport as a remarkable career rushing average of 4.7 yards per pop. He has always been dangerous when coming off the bench in a limited role, but this will be his true test. Davenport has only started two games in his six-year career, both of which came with the Packers. Davenport has not carried the ball more than the 24 attempts in a single game that he accounted for against St. Louis, and he is no stranger to injury. Durability will likely be the biggest concern for him going forward, but fatigue could be an issue, to a degree, as well.
Parker's 24.75 utilizations per game (41.25 percent of the team's offense) in the last month need to be replaced. The team probably won't miss Parker's 2.75 red zone utilizations per game (26.89 percent) given Davenport's style of running. Look for fullback Carey Davis to possibly figure into the goal-line and short-yardage situations. Running back Gary Russell could be active going forward, but the rookie has just one touch in three games this season.
While it remains entirely possible for the team to look to the free-agent pool to sign someone, only a few notable names exist. Free-agent running back Corey Dillon could be contacted, especially considering how his style fits what the Steelers do on the ground. However, it is unlikely that he is in playing shape this late in the season. Running back Cedric Humes is a bruising runner and was with the team during the 2006 offseason, but it seems unlikely that he would be called back with a new coaching regime in place.
Head coach Mike Tomlin emphasized the team's commitment to running outside this season, which is likely due to that being Parker's strength, but the Steelers do not have any running backs left on roster with that type of speed or perimeter ability. Russell is compact and is more of an inside runner. He displayed great burst in short area while at the University of Minnesota, but his top-end speed glacial, at best (4.84 40 time). Russell flunked out of college for academic reasons in 2005 and missed the entire 2006 season; he reportedly lacks a great work ethic. His leg drive is respectable, but his upper-body strength is limited (nine reps at 225 pounds - by comparison, Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler did 23 reps). However, Russell is a running back that could see significant time, so he may be worth a look in total point leagues with deep benches.
At the end of the day, none of the Pittsburgh running backs are likely to "wow" anyone, but Davenport should be added in all formats. Keep an eye on what the team plans to do with Russell, but he probably isn't worth acquiring.
About Cory J. Bonini
Cory is KFFL's General Manager. In late 2002, he joined the KFFL staff as a research analyst and has been involved in fantasy sports since 1996. A member of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, as well as Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Bonini has been featured in print, on radio and on scores of websites. Bonini co-hosted Big Lead Sports on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio from 2011 to 2012.
Bonini was recognized with the 2010 Best Article in Print Award from the FSWA and was a finalist for the same award in 2011. In '11, he finished first overall in the FSWA NFL experts challenge that featured 60 of the industry's best competitors.
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