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Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Scouts Inc.: Injuries hurt but won't break Steelers

By James Walker
ESPN.com

Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson

With rookie RB Rashard Mendenhall (shoulder) and veteran RG Kendall Simmons (Achilles') now headed for injured reserve, Pittsburgh's depth and resourcefulness is about be tested.

On the surface, the injuries seem like deal-breakers. With RB Willie Parker already out, Mendenhall's injury obliterates Pittsburgh's depth at the position. And because the rookie was the team's only legitimate power back, there isn't a viable replacement on the roster equipped for short-yardage situations. And though Simmons has been no better than an average NFL starter for a few years now, he's smart and experienced -- two qualities that seem to be lacking on the Steelers' offensive line lately.

Still, these developments shouldn't break this team -- or even significantly affect how the Steelers go about their business. RB Mewelde Moore is set to start at Jacksonville on Sunday, and though he's a bit small and should be Pittsburgh's No. 3, he's a better runner than his numbers against Baltimore (13 yards on eight carries) indicate. He has good vision and instincts and, despite his 209-pound frame, is tough enough to run inside. He lacks Parker's burst and breakaway speed and Mendenhall's power and measurables, but Moore is, at worst, a capable emergency starter. He's also an excellent receiver and a solid contributor in pass protection -- an asset Pittsburgh needs now more than ever.

With Simmons done, the Steelers likely will turn to backup RG Darnell Stapleton, which is a mistake. Stapleton isn't a bad player, but the team has better options. RT Willie Colon could slide inside to guard and OT Max Starks could start on the edge. Starks is talented and underrated and Colon -- who took reps at guard in training camp each of the last two years -- could handle the move with a little coaching. In this scenario, Pittsburgh's offensive line would be bigger and more experienced than if Stapleton replaces Simmons.

The Steelers won't change their scheme much to accommodate the new starters, but in any case they need to get better at what they already do. Coordinator Bruce Arians has taken some heat for his play calling, and rightfully so. Against blitz-happy Philadelphia and Baltimore defenses the last two weeks, he didn't do enough to aid an offensive line that struggles in protection and a quarterback who tends to hold on to the ball a beat or three too long. To preserve QB Ben Roethlisberger, give the linemen a hand and make the most of Moore's abilities, Arians needs to use more screens, draws and the like against pressure defenses (the Jaguars and Giants, two of the Steelers' next three opponents, certainly qualify).

Additionally, FB Carey Davis' ankle injury could limit Arians' flexibility, though it won't dramatically affect an offense that already prominently features two-tight end and multiple-receiver sets. RB Najeh Davenport likely will be brought back for depth and short-yardage work, and RB Gary Russell is a wild card who could spell Moore.

In the end, Pittsburgh may throw a bit more often and align Moore in the slot or split wide at times, but the core offense will remain unchanged. Mendenhall's and Simmons' replacements should be fine, but the pressure on Big Ben's shoulders and a stout Steelers defense just got turned up a little more.

Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.