Ignoring the obvious example of interchangable running backs in Baltimore and Oakland, and reference to the Cardinals humorous attempt at the wishbone in Week 12, clearly the moving trend in the NFL is no longer a two-back set. Many teams are using three now, and Pittsburgh can be said they were among the leaders of this.
After signing Mewelde Moore and drafting Rashard Mendenhall to help Pro Bowl back Willie Parker shoulder (no pun intended) the load, the Steelers were equipped to complete the metamorphasis to the NEW Steelers football - have multiple backs handle carries throughout the game.
That plan got railroaded early in the year, largely when Ravens LB Ray Lewis ended Mendenhall's season, and Parker nursing knee, shoulder and hamstring injuries.
The Steelers had to rely on the grit of (injured) quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to lock down a very winnable game against the hapless Bengals in Week 11. This was mostly because they could not run the clock out for the entire second half.
If you think the Steelers will be able to get wins over the teeth of their schedule - at New England, vs. Dallas, at Tennessee and at Baltimore - running the way they did against the Bengals, you're crazy. That's why it's time to take the Governor off second-year back Gary Russell and see what the hard-nosed kid from Columbus can do.
If for no other reason, he's running the hardest of all of them.
In Blitzburgh's excellent analytical piece on the Steelers' tendencies on 3rd-and-2-4. It doesn't mention Russell's 4th-and-1 carry for two yards against the Bengals - a pivotal point in the game. It doesn't mention his touchdown run on first-and-goal from the 2. It doesn't mention his h-yyyy-uge 3rd-and-1 conversion he had against San Diego in Week 11.
As he showed in his column, the Steelers want to throw the ball on third down with mid-range distance to go. That means teams are going to put their nickel defense against them, which allows Pittsburgh's offensive line to go hat-on-hat with one back behind Roethlisberger.
That should be Gary Russell. He's hungry for an expanded role, and considering the Steelers general lack of healthy, strong runners, it seems wise to get Russell in the game and get him the ball.
The Steelers can have confidence in Russell's hard head. Russell certainly does. He's been released from this team already this season, and knows what's at stake. He's got the same chip on his shoulder that Parker did when he was the undrafted free agent fighting for survival in a rough league. Despite being 8-3, the Steelers know their season is on the line over perhaps the most brutal stretch of regular season games they've ever had. With the team having to prove a lot, why not get the ball to the guy with the most to prove?
Their remaining five opponents all see how tentatively Parker ran against the Bengals. They also saw how hard Russell hit the hole, and how determined he churned his legs.
Roethlisberger chewing the offensive line out at halftime isn't going to fire them up like he did against Baltimore nearly as much as Arians putting the ball in Russell's hands on third-and-short. What's going to get them going is seeing Russell run through a lineman's arm-tackle, and through a linebacker's body to pick up those tough yards and extend the drive. He's done it three times in the last two games. Let's see if he can handle 10 carries in a game now. He's earned it on special teams, both returning and covering kicks.
What's even better is his success in that phase of the game is going to open up passing lanes down the seam. It's a lot easier to sell a play-action pass when you have a back running to lay the wood on someone than one who is tip-toeing through the hole. Parker is clearly the more talented of the three, but his injury limits his ability to gain the tough yards they will need to hold on to their 1-game lead in the North. Russell can take those carries, and give the Steelers offense the versatility it needs to keep defensive coordinators guessing.
Oftentimes the role players have to define the season. It's Russell's turn to shoulder the load. Pittsburgh's season may depend on it.