Faulk, Bell shine in backup roles
Kevin Faulk and Tatum Bell are among a number of backup running backs who could have a big impact on this weekend's games.
On his nine touchdown runs in the regular season, Pittsburgh Steelers reserve tailback Jerome Bettis totaled 21 yards, an average of 2.3 yards per score, with no touchdown for more than five yards, and six of two yards or less.
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When it comes to touchdowns on the ground, the two tailbacks, obviously, define the long and the short of things. But they are also representative of how some backup runners might be in the middle of the action, as well, for this weekend's divisional playoff round contests.
The old NFL axiom, that a team can never have enough good running backs, historically does not ring quite as true in the playoffs as it does during the regular season marathon. By nature, and by the numbers as well, coaches rely more on starters in general during the playoffs, and that is usually the case at the tailback position.
Still, that doesn't mean backup tailbacks haven't made some pretty meaningful cameo appearances in the postseason.
There were just three rushing touchdowns by running backs in the wild-card round last weekend (Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms and wide receiver Steve Smith of the Carolina Panthers also scored on the ground), and Bettis had one of them. Panthers backup Nick Goings supported starting tailback DeShaun Foster splendidly, running for 63 yards on a dozen carries. And Ladell Betts of Washington played well in spot duty for Redskins starter Clinton Portis.
How effective was Goings, who rushed for only 133 yards during the regular season, as the Panthers' power running game dominated the New York Giants' defense? The only back with more rushing yards in the wild-card round was Foster, the man whom he provided with well-timed breathers. While the cat-quick Foster was darting around tacklers, Goings was running through them, serving as a change-of-pace sledgehammer to the elusive Carolina starter.
It used to be that Foster was the change-of-pace runner to the brutish Stephen Davis. Now, with Davis on injured reserve and his career threatened by lingering knee problems, the slithery Foster tops the depth chart and Goings offers a smashing alternative.
The wild-card round also witnessed the reemergence of a No. 2 tailback who has come up big in past postseason tournaments as New England's Kevin Faulk, limited to only eight regular-season games by a severe foot injury, posted 96 combined yards from scrimmage on just 10 touches, six carries for 51 yards and four catches for 45 yards.
Largely because of injuries, Faulk totaled only 160 touches for 908 yards and three touchdowns in the last two regular seasons. But playoff time is certainly his time, when he is healthy. Last weekend, Faulk had plays of 12, 18, 19 and 21 yards, and his 10 touches resulted in five first downs for a Patriots offense that desperately needed his spark early in the contest.
Actually, Faulk started the game at tailback, replacing Corey Dillon in the lineup. After three series, though, the Patriots went back to their normal rotation. And Faulk went back to doing what he normally does in the playoffs, demonstrating quickness and deceptive power in the running game and elusiveness when playing in space on third downs.
"He's a playmaker and he always has been," said New England coach Bill Belichick. "Especially at this time of year."
Indeed, the playoffs seem to bring out the playmaker instincts of Faulk, a prototype nickel tailback whose value is often underappreciated outside of New England. In 10 postseason appearances, the former second-round selection from LSU has had the ball in his hands 66 times and averaged 6.7 yards per touch. He has produced first downs on nearly half of his 64 handles from scrimmage and his average of 5.6 yards per carry is nearly two yards better than his regular-season average for seven years in the league. With three Super Bowl rings, about the only thing missing from Faulk's résumé is a postseason touchdown.
"He is sort of the 'X factor' in their offense," said Carolina weakside linebacker Will Witherspoon, who spent much of Super Bowl XXXVIII futilely chasing Faulk all over the field at Reliant Stadium in Houston. "[He's] quick, very quick, and real clever, too. He makes a difference when he's healthy."
A Broncos linebacker corps that rates as one of the quickest in the league will have its hands full in Saturday night's matchup in Denver. Then again, the New England defense, much improved against the run in the second half of the regular season, also faces a difficult task in trying to contain Bell, who averaged 5.3 yards per carry during the year and who is capable of scoring from anywhere on the field.
Bell isn't so much a third-down back as he is an explosive alternative to starter Mike Anderson. In fact, Bell, a former second-round draft pick, caught only 18 passes in '05. But he possesses the kind of cutback instincts and vision mandatory to succeed in the Denver running scheme and, when he cuts back against the flow and hits air, he can simply run away from defenders.
|“||People seem to think he's just a speed guy, but that's probably underselling him a bit. He's a 'slashy' kind of runner but, when he pops one out the other side and gets into the secondary, look out. ”|
|— Eugene Wilson, Patriots safety, on Tatum Bell|
For the most part, Anderson softens up defenses and then Bell takes advantage of his warp speed against an eroded opponent. Broncos coaches had hoped in camp that Bell, the best pure runner on the depth chart, would mature and seize the starting job, but that didn't happen. No one is disappointed, though, by the way things played out. Bell had three 100-yard games and, in the 13 contests in which he and Anderson both played, he outrushed the starter six times.
One of his 100-yard performances, all of which came in a four-game stretch, came against the Patriots on Oct. 16. In the Broncos' 28-20 victory, Bell carried 13 times for 114 yards and one touchdown. The touchdown came on a three-yard run, but Bell also had a 68-yard sprint.
"People seem to think he's just a speed guy, but that's probably underselling him a bit," allowed Patriots safety Eugene Wilson. "He's a 'slashy' kind of runner but, when he pops one out the other side and gets into the secondary, look out."
The New England-Denver game isn't the only matchup this weekend in which defenses might have to look out for No. 2 running backs.
The Pittsburgh depth chart behind starter Willie Parker features Bettis, a future Hall of Fame member likely playing in his final postseason series, and nickel back Verron Haynes. The Steelers' staff loves to employ Bettis as a closer, the guy who sets tempo and bleeds clock time when Pittsburgh has a second-half lead. Haynes is good enough to have made Duce Staley a forgotten man. Pittsburgh likes to run Haynes out of passing situations, using him on delays from a shotgun formation, and he is very effective.
Portis plays a similar role for the Redskins, and he's a surprisingly heavy runner, but with quick enough feet to return kickoffs. Adrian Peterson, the backup to Chicago starter Thomas Jones, is a terrific special teams performer, but also averaged 5.1 yards on 76 carries during the season. And Goings, despite running for just 133 yards for Carolina in-season, provides the Panthers a power dimension.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .