Backup plans come through

His nickname is "Duce" (yeah, we know, he forgot an "e"), but he's only No. 3 on the tailback depth chart, and yet he was No. 1 in the hearts of the Pittsburgh Steelers and all their fans who made the long but rewarding trip to Lambeau Field Sunday afternoon.

All those incongruous elements surrounding Duce Staley, it seems, are in keeping with the rather topsy-turvy and certainly inexplicable 2005 season.

At the same time, though, Staley, signed to be the team's new workhorse in 2004 but without a single carry in '05 entering Sunday's game, served as one of the afternoon's many reminders that, as convoluted as this season might be, there remains at least a few irrefutable truisms.

One of them: You can never have enough good running backs.

Don't believe it? Ask "Weeping" Dick Vermeil, who made one of the gutsiest calls of his career Sunday, if he would have had the confidence to try for a game-winning TD run instead of a tying field goal if the Kansas City Chiefs had a tailback far less accomplished than Larry Johnson in the backfield filling in for the injured Priest Holmes. See if the beleaguered Mike Tice, whose Minnesota Vikings gave him a week's respite with a victory over Detroit, isn't happy that he finally exhumed the forgotten Michael Bennett from the bottom of the depth chart. Dial up Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith and query him on the sagacity of having used the fourth overall selection in this year's draft on the little-used Cedric Benson, when he already had Thomas Jones and Adrian Peterson around. And yeah, see if Bill Cowher is glad he had Staley for a game in which Jerome Bettis didn't dress and during which Pittsburgh starting tailback Willie Parker limped to the sidelines with a sprained left ankle.

Staley, who has started in just 10 of 24 regular-season games since he became the rare, big-ticket free agent acquisition for a franchise that generally prefers its players home-grown, has not exactly lived up to the Steelers' investment. But when the sputtering Pittsburgh offense needed him Sunday afternoon, the former Philadelphia star was like money in the bank. The Duce, in fact, was more like an ace in the hole. The nine-year veteran, who some observers felt might never get back on the field for the Steelers, carried 15 times for 76 yards and a touchdown, a 3-yard run late in the game that iced a 20-10 victory.

"To say it felt good to contribute again," Staley said, "would be a pretty big understatement."

To suggest that backup tailbacks didn't play a significant role in many Sunday outcomes would be equally hyperbolic. Of the 26 franchises that played Sunday, nine were led in rushing yards by backs who were either non-starters entering the season or going into the weekend schedule. And even some backs who didn't lead their teams in rushing Sunday -- such as Greg Jones of Jacksonville, who scored the winning touchdown on a 12-yard run, to help the Jaguars avoid a third straight embarrassing loss to Houston -- came up with meaningful plays.

Sam Gado, the fifth Green Bay tailback to register a carry this season, gained 62 yards on 26 carries and scored the Packers' lone touchdown. Subbing for the injured Domanick Davis, veteran Jonathan Wells of Houston (13 carries for 56 yards and five catches for 45 more yards) showed he is still capable of being a solid No. 2 back. San Francisco's Frank Gore (seven carries for 33 yards) might soon supplant the underachieving and overpaid Kevan Barlow as the 49ers' starter. The venerable Antowain Smith of New Orleans (17 rushes for 110 yards), the starter since Deuce McAllister suffered a season-ending knee injury, still has something left in his 33-year-old tank.

But the reserve tailbacks who contributed to victories -- Staley, Johnson, Benson, Jones and Bennett -- merit the most credit.

Benson carried 14 times for 79 yards after Jones left the Bears' victory over New Orleans with a rib injury and Peterson chipped in with 58 yards as well. Idle for much of the year, as onetime first-round bust Jones continues to revive his career, Benson still looks like a big-time prospect. The Chiefs' Johnson is making a lot of franchises, some of which considered trading for him in the past, regret not pulling the trigger on a deal. He ran for 107 yards on 22 carries and caught three passes for 48 yards, with one of his grabs setting up the winning touchdown, on which Vermeil eschewed a chip-shot field goal to go for the win. An unrestricted free agent after this season, Bennett sent a message to the teams that will be seeking backs (attention: Arizona Cardinals) next spring that he might be worth closer scrutiny.

"I know I can still play," said Bennett, who entered Sunday's game with only 71 yards on 23 carries in seven contests, and who was dredged up after starter Mewelde Moore went down. "I've just got to get some chances."

On Sunday, he and a lot of other reserve backs got their chances, and delivered.

Where's Westbrook?
Let's make this clear from the outset: Andy Reid is a lot better football coach than I am a sportswriter. Case closed.
But at 52 minutes after midnight, as we are hacking our way through this edition of the "Morning After," and a good half-hour since Philadelphia lost to the Washington Redskins by a 17-10 score Sunday night, we're still trying to figure out why the Eagles' best offensive player outside of their quarterback, tailback Brian Westbrook, was standing on the sideline for the critical fourth-down play at the end of the game on which Donovan McNabb threw an interception.

Westbrook may have been injured. We don't know. By 1 p.m. Monday, a lot of things we've addressed on the keyboard 12 hours earlier have gained clarification and nuance. This may be one of those cases. But if Westbrook wasn't injured, we are pretty hard-pressed to come up with an excuse, no matter how brilliant the potential ruse, for why he wasn't on the field.

Westbrook, the same player the Eagles signed to a five-year contract extension before the game, is certainly the team's most dynamic offensive playmaker when Terrell Owens is injured, benched, suspended, or all of the above. Yeah, he had rushed for just 24 yards on 17 carries, but he also caught four passes for 55 yards, and as usual, had Washington linebackers futilely chasing him around much of the evening. In space, the guy is one of the NFL's most elusive players, a receiver both linebackers and safeties have trouble checking.

Chances are that at some point Monday afternoon, Reid will have a perfectly viable explanation for Westbrook's absence on the most critical play of the game, and perhaps, the Eagles' season. But at a few minutes shy of 1 a.m., we're sure scratching our semi-bald noggin'.

Secondary education
Chosen in the second round of the 1997 draft, Carolina free safety Mike Minter is one of the Panthers' elder statesman, the second-longest tenured veteran in terms of continuous service, trailing only kicker John Kasay in seniority. On Sunday afternoon, though, as he pulled on a natty suit in the visitors' locker room at Raymond James Stadium, the classy nine-year vet looked more like a proud papa as he spoke of the exploits of his colleagues in the Panthers' secondary during a 34-14 whipping of the Tampa Bay Bucs.

Minter, who rarely gets enough credit for being one of the NFL's best all-around safeties (he's started at both the free safety and strong safety positions during his long career), is a student of the game. And clearly, his study habits are rubbing off on some younger teammates.

Case in point: Cornerback Chris Gamble, whose first of two interceptions gave Carolina an insurmountable lead when he returned the steal 61 yards for a touchdown, was able to jump the route because he knew precisely what pattern Bucs wide receiver Michael Clayton was going to run. And how did Gamble know Clayton, who was split wide and then went in motion, was going to run an out route? Because he had seen the same alignment and the same motion while doing extra video study. Gamble said that as soon as he recognized the route and his synapses fired, his "eyes got real big," and he "knew the play was mine."

The interception wasn't a guess so much as it was an educated guess -- there is, of course, a pretty big difference -- and Minter agreed that the team's young defensive backs are developing superb study habits. He is too much a gentleman to note that the younger backs are following his lead, but never mind, because they said it for him. "He's kind of like our conscience," said cornerback Ken Lucas, one of the team's significant free-agent acquisitions in the offseason. "You watch his [work ethic] and you aren't going to let things slide. He does things the right way." So does the entire Carolina secondary, a unit that has really galvanized since the coaches inserted veteran Marlon McCree at strong safety in place of first-round draft pick Thomas Davis, who was essentially chased off the field in the season opener, and whose future appears to be at linebacker.

It is a tough, hard-hitting secondary -- few cornerback tandems support the run with the intensity and aggressiveness of Gamble and Lucas -- and a unit that is far deeper than in the past. Getting Lucas, a virtual unknown on the East Coast after spending the first four seasons of his career in Seattle, was a terrific move, because it provided the Panthers two big corners and allowed the coaches to move Ricky Manning Jr. to the nickel spot. And general manager Marty Hurney and coach John Fox worked hard in the offseason to upgrade the depth at safety with veterans such as McCree and Idrees Bashir.

But it's the oldest hand in the Carolina secondary, Minter, who sets the tone. And while it looked like Minter was burned by Tampa Bay wideout Joey Galloway on a 50-yard touchdown catch Sunday, he's still a player who makes everyone around him a little bit better.

Rookie to watch
It's the time of the campaign for all of those half-season awards. You know, the most valuable player of the first half of the season, the defensive player of the first half, and all those other faux plaudits media outlets are so fond of choosing. Well, since my wonderful, sage bosses have relieved us of such duties this year (thanks guys, honest), we haven't had to dwell very much on how we might have doled out those honors. There isn't a single guy in the NFL, and we checked, who has a bonus in his contract rewarding him for being player/rookie/grand poobah of the half-season. So why fret too much over it?

But this much we did think about: If you want to add a player to your personal watch list for potential defensive rookie-of-the-whole-season honors, put San Diego first-round linebacker Shawne Merriman on your radar screen.

We're not certain if Merriman, the 12th prospect chosen overall in April, was the top defensive rookie through the first nine weeks of the season. Linebackers Odell Thurman (Cincinnati), DeMarcus Ware (Dallas), Lofa Tatupu (Seattle) and Derrick Johnson (Kansas City) probably all deserve to be on the half-season short list. Ditto Denver cornerback Darrent Williams and Philadelphia defensive tackle Mike Patterson. But we're guessing that when the real rookie of the year honor is awarded after the season, Merriman will be a strong contender.

The former University of Maryland star is beginning to mature, and quickly, on and off the field. In Sunday's win over the New York Jets, he posted nine tackles, a sack and two quarterback pressures. That raised his sack total to five, all in the last five outings. Merriman is a perfect fit for the 3-4 front the Chargers employ, a hybrid defender who still plays best moving forward, but who figures to get better in reverse with more playing time. He may not be the best defensive rookie of the half-season, but by the end of the year, Merriman could be a monster.

Not quite convinced
Any quarterback who registers a winning percentage of .686, no matter the level of the competition, deserves to be cut a break or two. And so the legion of critics whom Atlanta Falcons star Michael Vick must contend with every week need to lay off, at least a little, assuming the old adage is true, that the only numbers that matter at the position are wins and losses. And any quarterback who has suffered as much grief as Vick has over the last few weeks, when his every pass attempt has seemingly been freeze-framed more than the Zapruder film, has the right to stuff it back at his critics when he enjoys a game like he did Sunday.

In one of the best passing games of his career, Vick, working well from the pocket, completed 22 of his 31 attempts for 228 yards, with one touchdown pass and no interceptions in a tough win over the Miami Dolphins. OK, so now that many of the readers are poised to label us as the latest Vick apologist, here's this moment of lucidity: One great game doesn't yet merit an end to the focus on Vick's shortcomings as a passer. So enough talk about how Vick doesn't "want to hear it anymore" about how he isn't yet a polished pocket passer.

Want to talk about what a great athlete Vick is, how his derring-do makes him the league's most electrifying performer, and a guy who puts a lot of money into the coffers of the NFL Properties people? No problem. Want to call him a great quarterback, and a winner, because of that lofty success rate in terms of wins and losses? No argument. But the performance against Miami aside, the only elite thrower in the building Sunday was the guy honored by the Dolphins' organization at halftime, Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino. By completing 22 of 31 Sunday afternoon, Vick raised his completion rate for the season from 52.4 percent to 56.1 percent. For his career, it jumped from 53.5 percent to 54.0 percent. Notice the dearth of 60 percent numbers, the bottom of the scale for West Coast-style offenses, in those statistics.

The performance means that Vick has now thrown as many touchdown passes as interceptions in 2005, six each, and that he's now posted 11 career games with passer efficiency ratings of 100.0 or more. He's also got 15 career starts, including three this season, with passer ratings of under 60.0.

The Sunday game, in which Vick appeared considerably more comfortable in the pocket, from the snippets of action we were able to see, might well be a springboard. Then again, a week from now, the performance might be overshadowed by a game in which Vick's passing numbers look like they were tossed off a 10-meter platform and into the deep end of the pool. So did Vick prove a point Sunday afternoon? We're withholding judgment. For now, or at least until he follows it up with another lights-out passing game, all Vick's performance means in the big (throwing) picture is this: On this weekend, Michael threw the ball and took better care of it than did his little brother, Marcus, who was absolutely brutal in Virginia Tech's loss to the University of Miami on Saturday night.

Great stat from good buddy Don Banks of Sports Illustrated.com, pointing out that Ricky Williams' 23-yard touchdown run against Atlanta Sunday was the first score for the erstwhile Miami tailback in 677 days. Want an even more amazing one? Try this: The victory by Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch at Green Bay was his first win as a starter in 1,785 days. Batch last started in 2001, with Detroit, but was 0-9 that year. Until Sunday, he hadn't notched a win since Dec. 17, 2000, when he completed 8 of 18 passes for 110 yards in leading the Lions over the New York Jets, 10-7. … The NFL might want to rethink that plan about having the New Orleans Saints play at Baton Rouge in 2006, assuming the Superdome isn't ready. The Saints drew a piddling 32,637 for their Sunday game against the Chicago Bears -- an awfully small crowd to be rattling around in the 93,000-seat Tiger Stadium -- and among those who stayed home was New Orleans owner Tom Benson. He has vowed, and might carry through with the threat, not to set foot in Baton Rouge again. In some precincts, that might be perceived as turning up the heat on the league and commissioner Paul Tagliabue. … Sunday marked the 10th anniversary of the announcement by Art Modell that he was moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Fittingly, his old team, the Ravens, got beat. And the expansion Browns won. … Since the start of the 2004 season, Tampa Bay is 10-7 with Brian Griese as its starting quarterback and 0-7 in games he has missed. … The Miami defense has now surrendered an opening-drive score in seven straight games. … The interception by Atlanta safety Keion Carpenter, which came in the final two minutes and secured the Falcons' victory, was the first pickoff by a Falcons secondary player other than corner DeAngelo Hall. … Pittsburgh is the first team since the 1989-90 San Francisco 49ers to win 11 straight road games and just the fourth team in modern league history to achieve the feat. … After seven straight 100-yard games against the Cincinnati defense, Ravens tailback Jamal Lewis was held to 49 yards on 15 carries in Sunday's loss. … In his 1½ seasons in Arizona, coach Dennis Green has an 8-16 record. All eight wins were authored by Josh McCown, the quarterback he demoted last week in favor of Kurt Warner. … Continuing his fountain-of-youth season, Tampa Bay wideout Joey Galloway scored on a 50-yard bomb. He now has 12 touchdowns, 11 on receptions and one punt return, in his last 13 games. And at age 34, Galloway remains one of the league's fastest players. … Six of the last seven Raiders-Chiefs games at Arrowhead Stadium were decided either in overtime or in the final minute of regulation. … San Francisco hasn't scored a home touchdown in 13 quarters. … Arizona kicker Neil Rackers hit four more field goals, giving him 26, with no misses, for the season.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.