San Diego's Sproles is next test for Steelers defense
San Diego Chargers running back Darren Sproles, right, scores the winning touch down past Indianapolis Colts linebacker Clint Session in overtime during an NFL AFC wild-card playoff game last Saturday in San Diego.
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Mike Tomlin wanted to be clear about one thing: Darren Sproles, at 5 feet 6, 181 pounds, is not the smallest player in the National Football League. He preferred to refer to him as short.
"I think about guys like Warrick Dunn, who I worked with [in Tampa Bay]," Tomlin said. "They are not as much small as they are short. I think that to consider them small is naive. These guys run through contact, and they finish off runs. They are powerful people who just happen to be short."
Tomlin said the same is true of his outside linebacker, James Harrison, who is listed as 6 feet -- short by NFL linebacker standards -- but is the league's defensive player of the year.
Still, it doesn't matter if Tomlin wants to refer to Sproles as small, short, diminutive or tiny. That won't change what the Steelers (12-4) will need to do tomorrow when they face Sproles and the surging San Diego Chargers (9-8) in an AFC Divisional Playoff game at Heinz Field.
It might change how the NFL's top-ranked defense intends to corral Sproles. That is, if they can find him.
"He's harder to see," said defensive end Aaron Smith. "You get that big lineman in front of you, and it's hard to see over them. He hides back there."
"The main thing is finding him because he is so small and short that you can't really find him when he is behind those big, tall linemen," said Pro Bowl inside linebacker James Farrior, the team's leading tackler.
"I think the key for us is to stay in our gaps and playing gap-sound defense and locating him."
Sproles is expected to get the bulk of the carries for the Chargers, just as he did last week in the playoff victory against the Indianapolis Colts, because of the groin injury that has been bothering five-time Pro Bowl running back LaDainian Tomlinson.
All Sproles did against the Colts was rush for 105 yards and score the winning touchdown in overtime on a 22-yard run, capping a performance in which he totaled 328 all-purpose yards, third most in NFL postseason history.
Of course, it might be a different matter against the Steelers. The Colts had the 24th-ranked rush defense in the league. The Steelers are ranked No. 2, but their yards-per-rush average (3.29) is the best in the league.
All they have to do is find Sproles.
"A lot of times, our coaches will drill into us, if you lose the ball, go where your responsibility is," said inside linebacker Larry Foote. "Guess that way. Guess where you can't hurt. You can lose them with big running backs, too. It's just a matter of how big the linemen are and where the pile is. But if you lose the ball, go where you're supposed to be."
Finding Sproles, though, is only half the problem. The other is trying to tackle him.
"On a lot of his big plays for touchdowns, there are guys right there who could tackle him," said safety Ryan Clark. "There are a lot of guys that get opportunities to tackle him and get hands on him, but you never really see him take a flush hit. He is elusive and he is strong."
For the Chargers, the biggest problem now might be keeping him.
One year after losing backup running back Michael Turner to the Atlanta Falcons in free agency, the same could happen with Sproles, who is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. His performance against the Colts was nothing new.
A week earlier, he rushed for 115 yards and scored two touchdowns, one on a 13-yard catch, in the division-clinching thumping of the Denver Broncos.
"They're all, to a certain extent, hidden on certain positions in the play," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, referring to running backs in general. "The thing that [Sproles] does is he goes a little quicker than most running backs, and, if you miss him, he's by you a little quicker."
The Steelers were ranked No. 1 against the rush with three games remaining in the regular season, even after giving up 88 yards to Dallas Cowboys rookie Tashard Choice.
But, in the final three games, they allowed 87 yards to Baltimore's Le'Ron McClain, 69 to Tennessee rookie Chris Johnson and a season-high 94 yards to Cleveland's Jamal Lewis. That dropped them to No. 2 behind the Minnesota Vikings, who gave up 54 fewer rushing yards but also had 19 fewer rush attempts against them.
That is standard fare for most NFL defense, but, when it happens to the Steelers, it is if there are cracks larger than the San Andreas fault in the defense.
"I guess we spoil so many people with the way we play and what we do," cornerback Ike Taylor said. "That's the standards around here."
Pretty lofty, to be sure. Even against a small ... er, short ... back such as Sproles.
First Published January 10, 2009 12:00 am