Impact Analysis: Pittsburgh Steelers backfield

by Eric McClung on October 3, 2008 @ 16:15:14 PDT


A broken leg near the end of last season created concerns over Pittsburgh Steelers running back Willie Parker (knee) and his ability to be back at full speed in time for the start of the 2008 campaign. The injury may have helped prompt the Steelers to select running back Rashard Mendenhall (shoulder) with the 23rd overall pick of the 2008 NFL Draft. Fans and fantasy owners alike wondered how the Steelers coaching staff would split carries between the two backs. But few could have predicted how the Steelers backfield would look now, just one quarter of the way through the '08 season.

Injury woes

Parker got off to a fast start, totaling 243 rushing yards in his first two games. In the season opener against the Houston Texans, Parker surpassed his '07 touchdown total when he scored a career-high three times. Things quickly changed when Parker suffered a sprained knee late in the fourth quarter of a Week 3 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles. Parker missed the following game and has been ruled out for Week 5. The team has expressed hope that Parker will be able to return following their bye for a Week 7 game against the Cincinnati Bengals, but that is not a certainty.

Mendenhall piqued the interest of fantasy owners in part because of his tremendous physical gifts, but also due to the Steelers' tradition of running the football. However, he had some fumbling issues during the preseason and rarely played over the team's first three games, effectively dispelling the mistaken assumption it would be a committee approach. Then when given the opportunity to start for Parker, Mendenhall suffered a fractured shoulder against the Baltimore Ravens this past Monday night and was placed on injured reserve, ending his brief rookie season.

Fullback Carey Davis (ankle) was the initial replacement for Mendenhall but departed following an ankle injury. That left veteran tailback Mewelde Moore, who began the season as the fourth-string rusher, as the only healthy option in the Steelers backfield. Moore rushed eight times for 13 yards and added three receptions for 37 yards.

As if injuries to the top three running backs on the depth chart weren't enough, starting guard Kendall Simmons (Achilles') also suffered a season-ending Achilles' injury against the Ravens. Losing Simmons may dig the Steelers' offensive line, which had already allowed an AFC-high 16 sacks, into an even deeper hole.

What's old is new again

The outbreak of injuries prompted the Steelers to re-sign running back Najeh Davenport, who was cut by Pittsburgh during the offseason and had not signed with another club. Davenport scored a total of four touchdowns in the final four games of the '07 season for the Steelers and added two more rushing scores in the playoffs. However, he became expendable after the team nabbed Mendenhall with their first-round pick.

In another move, running back Gary Russell has been signed from the practice squad. He began the year on the active roster but was released and then added to the practice squad before Week 3. Russell has only seven NFL carries and is unlikely to see much action.

Fantasy football outlook

Moore will likely start in Week 5 against the Jacksonville Jaguars and is a good speculative pickup. Moore has tallied 2,434 career yards (1,304 rushing, 1,130 receiving) and is the top fantasy option if Parker misses time beyond this Sunday or returns in a lesser capacity. His receiving ability out of the backfield could help banged-up quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (shoulder), who may rely on quick, short passes to avoid sacks while playing behind a shaky offensive line. For Week 5, Moore holds value as a No. 3 back.

Russell and Davenport shouldn't garner much attention outside of very deep leagues for the time being. Both should be considered desperation plays for Week 5 with Russell holding slightly more value than Davenport.

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About Eric McClung

Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a three-time award finalist. Over the years, he's made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts. He's also captured the fantasy football championship in the KFFL staff league twice.

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