TEMPE, Ariz. – The Arizona Cardinals have a drastic shortage of running backs, just when they are about to meet a Buffalo Bills defense that has been highly susceptible to the run.
Beanie Wells is long gone because of turf toe, with his earliest return on Nov. 25. Now Ryan Williams is out for the season with a left shoulder injury that required surgery.
Enter LaRod Stephens-Howling, the diminutive situational back who has been in this situation before. Replacing the injured Wells in last season's finale against Seattle, the 5-foot-7, 2009 seventh-round draft pick gained 93 yards on 17 carries in Arizona's 23-20 overtime victory.
That day certainly was in Stephens-Howling's thoughts as he worked out as Arizona's No. 1 running back this week.
"I always thought I could do it, and it was just better to see it happen last year," he said.
Behind Stephens-Howling are William Powell and Alfonso Smith, not exactly a feared pair, or even a known pair, around the NFL. The Cardinals decided to stand pat and not add someone from the outside.
Center Lyle Sendlein said the team is taking Stephens-Howling's ascension this week in stride.
"I don't think it's as big of a thing as people make it to be," Sendlein said. "He's been in there so many times before. He knows our protections. He knows how to set up blocks. It's nothing like preparing someone who hasn't done it before."
Even when the regular backs are healthy, Stephens-Howling has a multitude of chores, including kickoff return duties, third-down back and situational plays that emphasize his skills, especially in the open field. He took Kevin Kolb's screen pass and scampered 52 yards for the deciding touchdown in a 19-13 overtime victory over Dallas last season.
So when Stephens-Howling sat out the last two games against Miami and St. Louis with an injury, he was sorely missed.
"People might call him a scat-back," Sendlein said, "but if you ask him he'll tell you he's an every-down back, and we believe he is. I guess you compare him to like a Warrick Dunn. Even though he is smaller, he doesn't take hits like a bigger running back. He knows to avoid them. He knows how to take hits. We're excited to have him as an every-down back this week, and we expect success."
The Cardinals' running game wasn't that great even with Wells and Williams. They rank 31st (out of 32 teams) in rushing at 63.4 yards per game. The Bills, who have surrendered more than 1,200 yards in their last two games, are 30th in run defense, surrendering 171.8 yards per game.
A semblance of a running game might help keep Kolb upright. He has been sacked 17 times in two games, and hit many times more.
Expect coach Ken Whisenhunt's game plan to try to emphasize the positives that the team's remaining backs bring.
Stephens-Howling's backup is William Powell, who had an even tougher uphill climb to make the Arizona roster.
Not that big himself at 5-foot-9, he wasn't drafted out of Kansas State in 2011 and signed with Arizona as a free agent. He was released in September 2011 but was re-signed by the Cardinals late last December. Strong play in the preseason this year, albeit usually against third-and fourth stringers, earned him a spot on the 53-man roster when this season began. He had three carries for 9 yards the last two games.
"I always dreamed big," Powell said. "Go for it. Even though I was home, I was praying for my chance, keep working out, staying ready. I can't say that I would imagine I would be in this situation right now. Hopefully I can make the best of it. I'm going to work hard to do the best I can with the opportunity."
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