Backfield tandems twice as nice
By Scott Brown
Friday, August 29, 2008
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When Rashard Mendenhall unexpectedly slipped in this year's NFL draft, the Steelers didn't hesitate to take the Illinois running back with the 23rd overall pick.

Their selection of Mendenhall wasn't driven by a concern over Willie Parker's right leg -- the Pro Bowler had broken his fibula four months earlier -- as much as it was a nod to what is prevailing in the NFL and college game these days.

Using one back to power the running game is slowly but surely going the way of pay phones and VCRs. The models are still around, but they are becoming increasingly outdated. Alternating two running backs is the fashionable way to run an offense.

Reasons for the two-is-better-than-one approach range from the physical punishment running backs absorb to the pressure it puts on opposing defenses when they have to contend with backs that are fresh and offer different running styles.

The defending Super Bowl champion showed the value of having a stable of good running backs last season.

Starter Brandon Jacobs and his backup, Derrick Ward, helped the New York Giants finish fourth in the NFL in rushing during the regular season. When the latter was lost for the season to a broken leg, rookie Ahmad Bradshaw teamed with Jacobs to give New York a formidable tandem.

Jacobs got 43 percent of New York's carries last season, and the Giants were far from the only team that divvied up the rushing workload with success.

The No. 1 running backs in Minnesota (Adrian Peterson) and Jacksonville (Fred Taylor) got 48 percent and 43 percent, respectively, of their team's carries. Minnesota led the NFL in rushing, and Jacksonville finished second.

The Steelers (third) and Tennessee (fifth) rounded out the top five in rushing last season but didn't spread the ball around as much as the Vikings, Jaguars and Giants did.

Willie Parker got 62 percent of the Steelers' carries in 2007, and LenDale White got 55 percent of the Titans' carries. Both teams, however, used their first-round pick this year on running backs -- Tennessee took Chris Johnson right after the Steelers selected Mendenhall -- and that seems like anything but a coincidence.

"When you've got two backs, you've got less wear and tear on each other," Steelers running backs coach Kirby Wilson said. "If they're real good backs, they're going to complement each other real well because that's what good players do, they feed off each other's strengths."

Following a similar model

West Virginia proved as much last season when it finished third among major college teams with almost 300 rushing yards a game.

Pat White, one of the best running quarterbacks in college football history, certainly loomed large in the Mountaineers' dominant ground attack.

But Steve Slaton and freshman tailback Noel Devine combined for almost 1,700 rushing yards. And teams hardly got a break when Slaton, West Virginia's all-time leader in rushing touchdowns, left the game as Devine used his breathtaking speed to average 8.6 yards a carry.

Pitt could pose the same problems for opposing defenses that West Virginia did last season with Slaton, Devine and fullback Owen Schmitt, who also was a running threat.

LeSean McCoy broke the Big East record for rushing yards by a freshman last season, and Pitt coach Dave Wannstedt called LaRod Stephens-Howling, who complements McCoy, "the best-kept secret in the Big East and maybe the country."

The Panthers also welcome back fullback Conredge Collins, one of the top NFL prospects at his position.

"We're looking at ways to use all three and incorporate them into the offense," Wannstedt said.

Penn State isn't as experienced or talented as Pitt in the backfield. The Nittany Lions do have a promising running duo in Evan Royster and Stephfon Green.

Royster, a redshirt sophomore, averaged 6.3 yards per carry while rushing for 513 yards last season and is poised to take over for the departed Rodney Kinlaw at tailback. Green redshirted last season as a freshman, but he opened eyes with his blazing speed in practice.

The rave reviews he drew from teammates for his work on the scout team continued into the spring. Green, who scored a 57-yard touchdown on the second play of the Blue-White game at the end of April, may be the fastest running back Penn State has had since Ki-Jana Carter, a Heisman Trophy runner-up in 1994.

"(Green) and Royster provide a great one-two punch," said Nittany Lions center and former Moon High standout A.Q. Shipley. "Royster is more a between-the-tackles type of guy; fits well in the zone scheme, where (Green) can bounce it at any minute and go. He's got the speed to do just about anything."

Benefits outweigh risks

Perhaps one overlooked advantage of having several good running backs is what they do for each other in practice.

"When you're a competitor, you're always watching the next guy," Wilson said. "They get better through the competition, so it's always a win-win situation when you've got two really good running backs."

What is ideal for teams that have a 1-2 punch is if the running backs have different styles. That puts extra pressure on opposing defenses since tackling a big, bruising back is much different than taking down a speedy, shifty back.

"If one guy's north-south, you don't really have to worry about the cut back," Steelers inside linebacker Larry Foote said. "Then you get a slasher guy in there that wants to cut back, you've got to make sure you're disciplined in your holes, so mentally it can be challenging."

Foote said when the Steelers go over scouting reports for upcoming opponents, an emphasis is always placed on what kind of running backs the defense will face.

"Sometimes it can be confusing when they have different style of running backs," Foote said. "As the season goes by and you see who's in there, you know pretty much what they want to do."

If there is one drawback to using multiple running backs, it is finding enough carries for them. Playing running back is as much about establishing a rhythm as it is reading blocks and making the right cuts.

Some players need a lot of carries to get into what Parker calls "a groove." Some only need a few to get into the flow of the game.

Parker averaged 21.2 carries a game in 2006-07 when he twice eclipsed 1,300 yards rushing and made the Pro Bowl. But he also thrived in 2005 when he averaged 17 carries a game and rushed for just over 1,202 yards.

Parker, who split time with Jerome Bettis in 2005, averaged 4.7 yards a carry that season, compared with 4.4 in 2006 and 4.1 last season.

"Jerome used to beat the defense up," Parker said, "and by the time I got in, they were all worn down."

In that sense, the Steelers are going back to the future.

Mendenhall isn't nearly as big or punishing as Bettis, but he does run with speed and power. And if he can give the Steelers the complementary back they have lacked since Bettis retired, it will only keep Parker stronger throughout the course of games and the season.

The same goes for Pitt with McCoy and Stephens-Howling, and Penn State with Royster and Green.

"If you have two guys who are similar -- and I mean ability-level similar, production-similar -- then I think it's a good system to have," Pitt running backs coach David Walker said. "You always have a chance to have a guy who's fresh on the field. That's the most important thing."

Kevin Gorman, John Grupp and Sam Ross Jr. contributed to this report.

Scott Brown can be reached at [email=""][/email] or 412-481-5432.