With Fast Willie out, Davenport now has run of the Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers can't go onto the waiver wire and replace a running back like Willie Parker. They can't find one on their bench or their practice squad or in an open tryout.

The NFL playoffs are only a week away, and the Steelers don't know what their running game will look like for a probable postseason opener at Heinz Field a week from Saturday or Sunday. They were encouraged by longtime NFL backup Najeh Davenport's 123-yard game last week, but that was against the Rams, not the Jaguars or the Browns.

Where will the reliable yards come from in January? How can they constantly avoid second-and-long? Will they have a running game in the postseason, or will their offense simply become Ben Roethlisberger throwing left, right and down the middle?

The Steelers hope to begin finding out Sunday in Baltimore, though there is no evidence the Ravens (4-11), as much as they dislike the Steelers (10-5), will offer any more resistance than the Rams did during a 41-24 loss.

Replacing a running back who was leading the NFL with 1,316 yards until he broke his right leg isn't easy, and the Steelers don't have much time to find an alternative.

Davenport's 100-yard game was fine, but it was only his second in 66 NFL career games. Parker had eight 100-yard games in his first 14 starts this season in an offense that is third in the league with 2,122 yards rushing.

"We can't change what we do," Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca said. "I think maybe we can expect Naj to maybe hit the hole a lot quicker (than Parker does). Willie could use his speed to maybe dictate to the defense a little and not necessarily hit the hole right away. Last week, you saw Naj hitting the holes quick."

Davenport, a former University of Miami star who played for Green Bay from 2002-05, isn't worried the offense will go from roughly a 50-50 split between the run and the pass to being pass-heavy.

"Whatever play they call, that's my favorite play," said Davenport, who has averaged only six-plus carries per game during his six-season career.

Davenport -- like many, if not all, NFL backs -- lacks Parker's speed, but the 6-foot-1, 250-pound Davenport said he shouldn't be labeled as a power back despite being bigger than the 5-10, 210-pound Parker.

"People like to think I'm a big bruiser, but when I run by you, you're surprised by it," Davenport said. "We have different running styles. I build my speed up, I'm a big guy and inertia works."

Coach Mike Tomlin isn't saying how much Davenport and the other offensive starters will play on Sunday, and it's likely the flow of the game will dictate that. The Steelers must win to retain any chance of being the third seed in the AFC, which is preferable to being the fourth seed because it likely avoids a matchup against New England (15-0) in the first two rounds.

But with Parker and defensive end Aaron Smith (torn biceps) out for the season, left tackle Marvel Smith's back bothering him, safety Troy Polamalu's knee a worry and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger walking on a tender right ankle, the Steelers can't afford one more injury. That could mean a lot of rest for many regulars on Sunday.

Davenport, however, wants as much time as possible with the starting offensive line, given the importance of every play and every carry during the playoffs.

"The more carries you get, the better off you'll be," Davenport said. "You warm up a bit, you get a better feeling for the game."

Max Starks, filling in at left tackle for Smith, said there aren't as many adjustments for the linemen as might be expected with Davenport in and Parker out.

"It's just knowing what type of guy you have in the backfield," Starks said. "Najeh's going to read more and look for the cutback as opposed to Willie, who is either going to take it front side or he's going to try to bounce it outside left to right. It's two different styles, but we still block it the same."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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