- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Thirty-two teams, 32 burning fantasy questions. Throughout the preseason, we put one of these questions to an ESPN.com analyst for an in-depth look at the most interesting, perplexing or dumbfounding fantasy facet of each NFL team. Be sure to check out all 32 questions.
With Bill Cowher retired, will the Steelers running game philosophy change?
It's not that the Pittsburgh Steelers don't deal with change well, it's that the franchise has seldom had to find out. The Rooney family has owned the team for all 75 years of its existence. Mike Tomlin enters the fray as the new coach, but he's merely the third coach the franchise has had since 1969. While organizational stability is a beautiful thing, the Steelers have also shared this philosophy on the field, in a blue-collar city that thrives on beating opponents up on both sides of the ball.
The Steelers have been running the ball confidently and successfully for more than a generation. So, all the talk of a new playbook and spreading out the offense shouldn't change the effectiveness of the running game, but expand the offense into new areas unfamiliar to Steelers fans. To me, the real question isn't about the change in the offense, but how the new offense will change Willie Parker, Ben Roethlisberger and others you will need to think about on fantasy draft day, because it's clear the base philosophy in Steel Town is different.
In truth, the Steelers opening up their offense with new bells and whistles could be a good thing for everyone, including the quarterback, the running back and the defense. Fantasy owners should consider the changes positively. New offensive coordinator Bruce Arians doesn't intend to come in and turn the speedy Parker into a Jerome Bettis-type bruiser, but then again, Cowher wasn't using Parker as a power back either. Instead, we might see Parker catch more passes, and turn more innocent running plays into larger gains. Wouldn't that be nice for his already tremendous fantasy value?
Tomlin brings a defensive approach to the Steelers, so he's not going to forget what works for him. He drafted outside linebackers in the wake of Joey Porter leaving town, and he's not going to let Arians turn this team into the Saints -- a team whose wide-open play can produce wild, high-scoring affairs. But why shouldn't he and Arians experiment offensively, even going so far as to let Roethlisberger have a role in changing the playbook?
Parker rushed for nearly 1,500 yards last season, the third-best total in franchise history. He topped 100 yards rushing seven times, and 200 yards twice. He scored 16 touchdowns, registering more than one in six games. Is he a rugged running back? Of course not, but he's fast and will surely enjoy the vacated patches of field with this new spread offense. Parker wasn't utilized much in the passing attack last season. It's uncertain whether that will change much with Najeh Davenport healthy, but from a fantasy aspect, it's not like Parker will be as forgotten as Shaun Alexander and Jamal Lewis are in their team's passing game. Kevan Barlow could steal some of the goal-line carries, but Parker remains the feature back and a serious breakaway threat. I think the change in offense could help his statistics.
Roethlisberger's fantasy value could skyrocket in this offense; he should play a larger role in directing the team. Remember his rookie year, when his job was merely to avoid mistakes? Now he gets more receivers to look at in the spread formation, he'll see more work from the shotgun, call more plays, utilize the no-huddle and, most importantly, he will do this all as a healthy man. Last offseason wasn't exactly a good one for him.
While Roethlisberger stands to gain from the new offense, it hardly means Parker has to suffer.
"When you spread out the defense, there's less guys in the box, and Willie can make guys miss," Roethlisberger told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I think it will help in the run game when we spread them out and get him out of the backfield, catching some balls and getting him in some open space on linebackers."
For as much as the Steelers are known for a bruising run game, few backs starred in Pittsburgh between the Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis eras. Barry Foster once went off for 1,690 yards, but he was out of the league three seasons later. Other players to lead the team in rushing since the mid-'80s include Earnest Jackson, Erric Pegram, Merril Hoge, Frank Pollard and Amos Zereoue, but their numbers came from the system. Now the system appears to be gone. Will that matter?
Probably not. Parker has proven to be a special player, so have confidence selecting him in the first round.
13hTristan H. Cockcroft