Friday, May 11, 2007

Running for Cover

To anybody who has been paying attention, it’s clear the Steelers plan to add some fresh wrinkles to the offense under new head coach Mike Tomlin and new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. More spread formations, crisper rhythm all around, greater use of the (gasp!) tight ends, more swing passes, quicker breaks, etcetera.

All long overdue and, hopefully, these changes will help the Steelers offense open lanes while shoring up their weaknesses (pass protection) and optimizing their strengths (getting Fast Willie Parker out in space, as in, open field, and moving the chains with quick-hit passes to receivers, including tight ends).

We keep hearing coaches and players use the term, “less predictable” in reference to the offense, and that should be a good thing.

All well and good, indeed. Especially if Fast Willie Parker maintains the blessed good health he enjoyed throughout last season … if, however, he goes down, God forbid, what then?

It’s a fair question not only because of who the Steelers may have available to step in, but also because of what type of backs they are likely to have. If FWP goes down, will that force a return to the kind of crimped, between-the-tackles inside running game we’ve grown so accustomed to around here?

After all, in their quest to find a big back to complement FWP, the Steelers have quietly stockpiled a bevy of fairly big backs. Nobody quite as big or as productive as Jerome Bettis — who is? … he was one of a kind — then again, nobody as fast as Fast Willie Parker, either, but who is?

Najeh Davenport (250 lbs.), John Kuhn (255), Kevan Barlow (235), Carey Davis (235), Paul Mosley (235),Verron Haynes (225): All these guys are between-the-tackles types, and all are at least 235 pounds, with the exception of Haynes, who’s never been a burner in any case.

The only exception to the between-the-tackles model would be undrafted free agent rookie Gary Russell, who is listed at 5’11”, 215 pounds, and is evidently a slasher. We don’t know yet what we have in him. But if Fast Willie Parker goes down for the season this weekend in minicamp, Russell would be the closest thing to him in terms of approximate physical stature and, possibly, running style.

So, we’re just asking.

And that brings us to the subject of Kevan Barlow (pictured above). Our reaction to his signing? Eh. We’ll see. Does he bring anything that you’re not getting already from Najeh Davenport, who performed well last year, or John Kuhn, who looked good in training camp last year and could play on all special teams? Hard to say. Will Barlow even be willing to play special teams? … and we’re not even talking about returning kickoffs? Will he make a block or bust a wedge? Has he ever?

Again, just asking.

Willie Reid, if he makes the team, presumably will take over the primary kickoff return duties from Davenport. But Davenport actually did pretty well in that role last year, and he showed he could catch the ball out of the backfield. He did everything he was asked to do.
So has Verron Haynes, who has always excelled on special teams and in the role of the third-down back, as a blocker, runner and pass-catcher out of the backfield, but his health presently makes him a question mark.

Bottom line: We’re not as excited about Barlow as some people. At least he gives them an option at running back, and he’s signed at a cut-rate price. He was a star at Peabody, at Pitt and in the NFL with the 49ers, so he’s worth a look. We just wonder if he has anything left – and, if his skills have diminished as a running back, well … he’s not likely to give you what you need from your third running back on all the various special teams.