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Third-down back search a pressing issue for Steelers

The competition -- if it can be called that -- for third-down back begins today when the Steelers return to practice after a five-day break.

Najeh Davenport had filled the role before a season-ending injury to Willie Parker made him the Steelers' feature back.

"If he's going to be the primary ball carrier, you've got to find spots to allow him to catch his breath if you will," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "I think that's a reasonable assumption if he's going to carry the ball 20-25 times."

Carey Davis and Verron Haynes are the most likely candidates to take over as the Steelers' third-down back, and Tomlin said Monday that both could fill that role.

The Steelers signed Haynes on Monday when they put Parker on injured reserve, and the sixth-year veteran is familiar enough with the Steelers' offense that he could play Sunday in the team's regular-season finale against the Ravens.

Haynes played for the Steelers from 2002-06, and he made it to the final round of cuts in training camp this year.

"I don't think it will be that much of a learning curve with him," Tomlin said. "The offense hasn't changed that much from training camp to where it is now."

Haynes had been a solid third-down back who excelled at picking up blitzes before sustaining a season-ending knee injury last October. Like Haynes, Davis -- the Steelers' starting fullback -- is a dependable blocker and receiver out of the backfield.

While Davenport takes over at running back for the player who had led the NFL in rushing prior to breaking his fibula, Tomlin said rookie Gary Russell could also get some carries with the loss of Parker.

"It's going to have to be a running back by committee," Tomlin said. "That's what you deal with when you lose a player the quality of Willie Parker."

Third seed a longshot

The Chargers' 23-3 win over the Broncos on Monday night may have helped make an important decision for Tomlin: whether he should sit some of his ailing starters -- including quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (sprained ankle) -- Sunday against the Ravens.

If the red-shot Chargers beat the Raiders on Sunday they get the No. 3 seed in the AFC playoffs no matter what happens in the Steelers-Ravens game.

The Steelers can do no worse than a No. 4 seed in the playoffs by virtue of winning the AFC North.

They probably won't get the help they need from the Raiders, considering Oakland has won just four games this season while San Diego has reeled off five victories in a row.

And the Steelers won't know before their game whether a win will get them the No. 3 seed since the Chargers-Raiders game also starts at 4:15 p.m. Sunday.

Bringing the heat

Tomlin said he was pleased with how rookie LaMarr Woodley played in the Steelers' 41-24 win over the Rams last Thursday.

Sharing time with starter Clark Haggans (sprained knee) at left outside linebacker, Woodley got his most significant action of the season, and he led the Steelers with two quarterback hurries.

"He provided pressure off the edge for us," Tomlin said. "He got to the quarterback a couple of times. It was good to get him out there, and hopefully, that will continue."

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