Head to Head: Chargers RB Darren Sproles vs. Steelers ILB Keyaron Fox
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The Steelers have faced Darren Sproles before in a playoff game at Heinz Field. Only then, his name was Maurice Jones-Drew.
They are similar players with similar roles, even similar body types. They run the ball, catch the ball and return kicks. The Steelers are hoping the similarity ends there.
Sproles is the 5-foot-6, 181-pound dynamo for the San Diego Chargers who single-handedly tossed the Indianapolis Colts from the playoffs with 328 all-purpose yards last week.
Jones-Drew is the 5-foot-7, 208-pound sparkplug for the Jacksonville Jaguars who was largely responsible for giving the Steelers an early playoff exit last year. Like Sproles, Jones-Drew wasn't the feature back in the Jaguars' offense. But he had 168 all-purpose yards in Jacksonville's 31-29 playoff victory at Heinz Field -- catching a 43-yard touchdown pass, scoring on a 10-yard touchdown run and effectively changing the complexion of the game with a 96-yard kick return right after the Steelers scored on their first possession for a 7-0 lead.
"He did it to us right away -- he hit us with a big one," said linebacker Andre Frazier, a member of the Steelers' special teams.
The Steelers want to be sure the Chargers' Sproles doesn't have a similar impact with his multitalented abilities.
Used to be, the Steelers' top priority when playing the Chargers was stopping LaDainian Tomlinson, their five-time Pro Bowl running back. Now, though, with Tomlinson expected to be limited -- and maybe not even play -- because of a groin injury, the focus will shift to Sproles, both for the Steelers' No. 1-ranked defense and the improved special teams.
"You can see from watching the [Indianapolis] game the impact Sproles had," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "And not just running the ball, but screens and catching the ball out of the backfield."
Sproles did everything in the Chargers' 23-17 overtime victory against the Colts, amassing the third-most yards in NFL playoff history with 105 yards rushing, 45 receiving, 106 on kick returns and 72 on punt returns. He touched the ball 35 times and averaged 9.3 yards every time he did.
"He took over the game the other night," Frazier said. "He has God-given natural ability. He's able to see the hole and hit it full speed. I've seen him break tackles and spin off guys. He's going to be a handful."
Because of his size and quickness, Sproles is difficult to catch, maybe even tougher to corral. His quarterback, Philip Rivers, said he doesn't think he could tackle Sproles in a phone booth.
"He's a little guy," said inside linebacker Keyaron Fox, one of the special teams standouts. "Even if you do find him, once you get there to make a tackle, it's still a job to wrap him up."
Sproles touched the ball four times for 21 yards in the Nov. 16 game at Heinz Field -- rushing once for no gain, catching one pass for 9 yards, returning one kickoff for 12 yards and fair-catching a punt. That's the way the Steelers hope to keep it.
Last year, Jones-Drew's kickoff return was one of three of 90 yards or longer against the Steelers. This year, they rank No. 1 in the league in kick coverage, fourth in punt coverage. Their longest return allowed was a 44-yard kickoff by New England's Ellis Hobbs.
"With a guy like that, you just have to make sure you cover your lanes," said cornerback Anthony Madison, who led the team with 25 special-teams tackles. "You can't give him any gaps. We need to keep it like that."
And avoid a repeat of what happened last season.
First Published January 9, 2009 12:00 am