Mild hamstring strain has Staley questionable

PITTSBURGH -- The Steelers running game, expected to be a major factor in Sunday's battle here with the Philadelphia Eagles, may have suffered a major blow on the eve of the intrastate showdown, as Pittsburgh unexpectedly downgraded starting tailback Duce Staley to "questionable" on the official league injury report.

Staley suffered what was considered to be a mild hamstring strain in Friday's practice. But when he arrived for the Steelers' walkthrough on Saturday morning, the hamstring was considerably sorer than the club's medical staff anticipated, and Staley immediately received treatment for the injury.

Team officials emphasized the hamstring injury was in no way related to, nor precipitated by, a knee problem that had been bothering the eight-year veteran.

By definition, a "questionable" listing on the NFL injury report means that a player has a 50-percent chance of participating in the game. But sources contacted on Saturday night said they feel the odds that Staley will start are at least a bit less than 50 percent. A team spokesman said Staley's availability will be a game-time decision.

If Staley cannot start, he will be replaced in the lineup by 12-year veteran Jerome Bettis, who has largely been relegated to short-yardage and goal line duties this season. Bettis has carried only 52 times in seven games, for 129 yards, with eight touchdowns.

Signed by the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent out of Philadelphia this spring, Staley has gotten off to a start that projects this season as his best. He has started all seven games, and rushed for a team-best 707 yards and one touchdown on 151 carries. In essence, Staley has assumed the workhorse role that Bettis once held.

While he insisted this week there were no residual hard feelings between he and Eagles officials, Staley has been looking forward to the marquee tilt against the franchise that brought him into the league and for which he played his first seven seasons.

The Steelers running game statistically ranks No. 4 in the league, averaging 147.7 yards per game, and has provided excellent insulation and balance for rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger through the first five starts of his career.

There is some irony with the injury to Staley, since it was Philadelphia coaches who spent much of the week worrying about the availability of their starting tailback, Brian Westbrook. The third-year veteran, who missed last week's game with a broken rib and related chest injuries, is expected to play against the Steelers, after increasing his practice workload in the day leading up to the matchup here.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.