Later today in Kansas City, Chiefs linebacker Andy Studebaker will make his first NFL start two years removed from being a non-scholarship DE at Wheaton College. It’s a huge jump, but one that isn’t getting in Studebaker’s way.
“I’m not overwhelmed right now,” Studebaker said. “It’s going to be fun on Sunday. Just getting that opportunity, coming from a small school, not a lot of guys get to do that.”
The Chiefs and coach Todd Haley will be looking closely for signs that the game might be too big for Studebaker. He will replace the injured Mike Vrabel, who didn’t practice this week because of a sore knee and was listed by the Chiefs as doubtful for Sunday’s game.
“In the offseason, you wondered all those things,” Haley said. “You can’t look any better than Andy. I called him Venice Beach. He likes to take his shirt off. He likes to work out. He likes to lift. He loves to run. He wins every run there is, just about.
“So you’re sitting there saying, ‘Is this going to translate to the football field?’ You don’t know until you see him actually playing. It’s a big job, but he’s prepared for it.”
Vrabel should return to the lineup later in the season. Until then, Studebaker can make a strong claim to be the eventual successor to Vrabel, 34.
That process started early in the third quarter of last week’s game in Oakland. Vrabel left the game because of his injury, and Studebaker finished the game by knocking down a pass and getting in on four tackles as the Chiefs held on for their second win of the season.
“It was not perfect, but that being said, for his first real action it did not appear too big for him,” Haley said. “He knew what to do, and he did it. He made some plays, and he was active. Those were all good signs. He did a pretty good job last week, and now he’ll get a chance to build on that.
“He’s been a bit of a bright spot for us. He’s a guy that’s been very good for us on special teams, definitely one of our top three special-teamers week in and week out.”
For me, he’s the player to watch today on the Chiefs defense. It’s going to take more than a good performance from the young linebacker to stop the Steelers rushing attack, but if he can’t handle the big stage it could create a ripple effect across the rest of the defense. Mike Vrabel has been a rock outside and allowed Demorrio Williams and Corey Mays to hit early and often on the inside. If they have to clean up anything on Studebaker’s side it could open things up between the tackles.
Just because starting Bengals running back Cedric Benson rediscovered himself in Cincinnati, don’t expect Larry Johnson to do the same. Especially at the expense of your fantasy team.
Johnson’s chances of being productive in a potent Bengals offense is leaps and bounds above the eight-man fronts and terrible offensive line play he was dealing with in Kansas City. That is, if he gets the ball. He is scheduled to be Benson’s backup. If Johnson assumes the duties of prior No. 2 Bernard Scott, then L.J. can expect about 3-6 carries a game. We wouldn’t be surprised if that number increased to 8-10, but still not enough to warrant a fantasy start. Look at what Willis McGahee is doing behind Ray Rice in Baltimore, and that is slightly more than we expect from L.J. the rest of the year.
Monitor Benson’s hip injury, but reports indicate he likely will sit out Sunday, so L.J. is a decent play vs. the Raiders, if you’re desperate. Stick with that plan the rest of the way: Only start Johnson if Benson is definitely out, and the Bengals face a weak run defense.
LJ wasn’t worth anything more than a backup fantasy role when he was with the Chiefs and that isn’t going to change now that he is with the Bengals. If you’re in a keeper league, maybe stow him away until the offseason when he finds a new team and maybe a new starting job.
Speaking of the Bengals…
After losing to Cincinnati and a week away from a showdown with Baltimore, could the Steelers be overlooking the Chiefs? Pittsburgh fans might be, but injured safety Troy Polamalu says the team isn’t.
Last week, a newspaper ran a web poll asking readers whether Troy Polamalu should play for the Steelers today against the Kansas Chiefs, even if he’s cleared by team doctors. An overwhelming majority responded in the negative.
Of course, the Chiefs are only 2-7. The thinking must be that it’s more important for Polamalu to be healthy for the following week’s game in Baltimore.
Polamalu, of course, believes that’s a dangerous way for anyone to view today’s game in Kansas City.
“No question it is,” he said. “You can’t take for granted the NFL and the challenges each week brings around. I know there were some times in my rookie year when we weren’t that good that we still felt we could challenge anybody. I’m sure they feel the same way.”
The young Chiefs, though, will be up against one of the great defenses in NFL history, even without Polamalu and defensive end Travis Kirschke.
Both players have been ruled out of today’s game. But even though Polamalu has missed four full games and three-quarters of two others, and Kirschke has missed the past two games after stepping in for an injured Aaron Smith, the Steelers’ run defense has never posted better numbers.
Opponents are averaging an NFL-low 69.3 yards rushing per game against the Steelers, down significantly from last season’s average against the Steelers of 80.3.
In fact, the Steelers are well ahead of their 2001 team-record pace of yielding only 74.7 yards rushing per game, and could even challenge the league record. Only two NFL teams in the past 65 years have been stingier against the run: The 2000 Baltimore Ravens (60.6) and the 2006 Minnesota Vikings (61.6).
It is going to have to be a special day for the Chiefs all the way around if they plan to take out the Steelers. Polamalu being out of the lineup is part of that equation. Another is the Pittsburgh players overlooking the game at Arrowhead as they wait for next week’s nationally televised match up in Baltimore.