Steelers’ Barlow Vs. Davenport: A RB Comparison
Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial
|Wednesday, July 18, 2007
By Paul Eide
Steelers Fever Columnist
It may not be Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vader, but a battle is being waged for the Steelers number two running back position behind starter Willie Parker. Seven year veteran Kevan Barlow and sixth year pro Najeh Davenport are competing for the role of Parker’s primary back up and the loser may find himself in the NFL unemployment come September.
Kevan Barlow has been living off his performance in the 2003 season for the last three years but has failed to reach the same level of statistical success ever again. In that year he averaged 5.1 yards per carry, scored six touchdowns and rushed for 1,024 yards while only starting four games. Barlow also caught 35 passes for 307 yards and another score and showed versatility that many thought would cement him as the 49ers starter for years to come.
But over the next two seasons as the feature back Barlow’s production decreased significantly. On 420 carries in 2004 and 2005, Barlow averaged only 3.3 yards per carry after averaging 4.6 on 471 carries from 2001 to 2003 and generally looked worn down and out of sync with the rest of the Niners offense. The offensive line received most of the blame for this, but with the emergence of Frank Gore in 2005 and his success running behind the same offensive line (4.8 yards per carry vs. Barlow’s 3.3) Barlow essentially punched his ticket out of town and was traded to the New York Jets prior to the start of the ’06 season.
In the Big Apple, Barlow failed to distinguish himself in a crowded backfield situation that had him competing for carries with rookie Leon Washington and second year runner Cedric Houston. His statistical high point was a 17 carry, 75 yard, one touchdown performance against the Patriots, but aside from that one productive game Barlow finished the ’07 season with only 370 yards, a 2.8 yards per carry average and was unspectacular to say the least. Used primarily as a short yardage back, Barlow did score six TDs from close range for the Jets, which has lead many to believe he will be used in a similar fashion for the Steelers.
In Davenport’s first three years (02-04), he averaged 5.1 yards per carry on 187 carries while backing up Ahman Green and Tony Fisher for the Green Bay Packers. In those three years Davenport only started one game but showed flashes of being a surprisingly explosive, elusive runner for a back of his size (6-1, 247).
The knock on Davenport during his four year career with the Packers was his inability to stay healthy; out of a possible 64 games, he only appeared in a total of 39 because of various injuries. In his fourth year he played in only five games thanks to a fractured ankle and the Packers had seen enough to release him.
In 2007 Davenport performed pretty well considering that he was learning the Steelers playbook on the fly, but the coaching staff’s unwillingness to take the ball out of Willie Parker’s hands a little more than they did is cause for some concern.
In the 13 games where Davenport received playing time last season, he averaged 4.6 carries per game and eclipsed the 10 carry mark only three times, finishing with 221 yards and a TD on 60 carries.
His best performance came in a blowout 45-7 win versus Kansas City where he rushed for 78 yards and a TD on 12 carries. Davenport’s 15 receptions for 193 yards and a score on the year showed some effectiveness catching the ball out of the backfield. His ability to return kicks is something that may help him earn a roster spot as well. On 21 kickoff returns last season he averaged 21.3 yards per return for the Steelers and has averaged 23.3 for his career.
If the Steelers are truly looking for a big back to pound between the tackles around the goal line (a la Jerome Bettis) neither Barlow nor Davenport look especially well-suited for this role, though that could change over time. But, either player could be effective at giving Parker the occasional breather and both have starting experience should “Fast Willie” succumb to injury at some point during the season.
Davenport has only scored 8 career rushing touchdowns on 277 carries (one per every 34 carries) and rarely looks like a true north to south grinder, juking and hesitating behind the line of scrimmage far too much for a back of his size. Barlow became the goal line option in New York essentially by default because at 6-1, 234 pounds he was bigger than Washington (5-8, 202) and Houston (6-0, 220).
But with 33 career touchdowns to Davenport’s nine, and extensive experience as a starting NFL running back, Barlow may have a slight edge heading into training camp. Additionally, the fact that the team was interested enough to sign Barlow shows that the new coaching staff may not be all that impressed with Davenport to begin with.
Having attended the University of Pittsburgh as well as graduating from local Peabody high in Pittsburgh means that more than a few Steelers fans would like to see Barlow succeed in the Steel City. Whether or not that is the case will be determined between now and September ninth when the Steelers open the season against the Cleveland Browns.