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Backfield clarity only place Chiefs edge Steelers

Backfield clarity only place Chiefs edge Steelers

PITTSBURGH (AP) Ask any of the people involved in the current - and at the moment only - drama surrounding the surging Pittsburgh Steelers about who should be the starting running back and you'll get a variety of answers. None of them definitive.

Jonathan Dwyer, whose 299 rushing yards lead the team, thinks the job belongs to injured Rashard Mendenhall, whenever Mendenhall's strained right Achilles heals.

Isaac Redman thinks it should be the ``hot hand,'' which at the moment would be his after running for a career-high 147 yards in last week's season-defining triumph against the New York Giants.

Mendenhall, who has carried the ball just 19 times in the past 10 months after tearing the ACL in his right knee on New Year's Day, thinks the decision is out of his hands and would prefer to focus on his health.

Even the guy actually in charge of the depth chart is noncommittal.

``Whoever's being productive when healthy is going to get the totes,'' coach Mike Tomlin said. ``I really think it's that simple. I'm not going to make it any more complex than it has to be.''

Or any less murky either.

Redman will get the start on Monday night when the Steelers (5-3) host luckless Kansas City (1-7). The Chiefs have endured a miserable first half of the season, though the re-emergence of Jamaal Charles gives them clarity in the backfield.

A year removed from a torn ACL that ended his 2011 season after just two games, Charles is ninth in the NFL in rushing and remains one of the most explosive players in the league. He ran for 233 yards - the second-highest total of the season - in a 27-24 overtime win against the Saints that remains Kansas City's lone victory.

``You just can't let the guy get daylight because he's gone,'' Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. ``New Orleans was doing a great job and had a pretty good lead. Then, in two snaps he erased it. He went 90 yards with one and 50 yards with the next.''

Charles' numbers have tumbled the last three weeks thanks to erratic quarterback play that has done little to prevent defenses from crowding the line of scrimmage to keep him in check.

While the Chiefs are sinking, the Steelers are soaring.

Pittsburgh has won three straight and is getting production from whoever happens to be bending over next to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the huddle.

Mendenhall returned from his rehab to rack up 101 total yards and a touchdown in a victory against the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 7. The comeback lasted all of a game. He strained his Achilles tendon the following week against Tennessee and hasn't played since.

His absence, however, has hardly derailed the running game. Dwyer - the third-string back at the beginning of the season - went over 100 yards in wins over Cincinnati and Washington before tweaking his right quadriceps.

Enter Redman, who shook off minor injuries in both of his ankles to thrash the Giants in 26 angry and clock-chewing carries.

All three backs are quick to credit the suddenly dominant offensive line and coordinator Todd Haley's streamlined playbook for helping the Steelers find the balance necessary to take pressure off Roethlisberger's capable shoulders.

All three also know the leash is short if they don't perform.

``It's like basketball, if the shooter has the hot hand, we're going to feed him the ball and if all of us are feeling it, we'll just rotate or something,'' Dwyer said.

Something the Steelers did with little success early in the season. Redman began the year as the starter but neither he nor Dwyer found much traction while splitting carriers. Pittsburgh ranked 31st in the league in rushing during the first three weeks and heralded Mendenhall's return as the spark needed to kickstart the running game.

It did. The flame, however, didn't go out when Mendenhall headed back to the sideline during the first half of a 26-23 loss to Tennessee on Oct. 11.

Dwyer and Redman have both thrived while not having to look over their shoulder. Redman and Mendenhall were both inactive when Dwyer rolled through the Bengals and Redskins, and Mendenhall and Dwyer weren't in uniform against the Giants.

The last time Dwyer and Redman played together they combined for 26 yards on 12 carries in a befuddling 34-31 upset at Oakland on Sept. 23, including a fourth-quarter fumble by Dwyer that helped the Raiders rally and led Tomlin to bench the former Georgia Tech star for the next two games.

Dwyer responded by becoming the first Steelers running back in four years to top 100 yards in consecutive games. Did he earn more playing time? That's not his call.

``I've done my job,'' Dwyer said. ``The two weeks they needed me to step up, I stepped up. I did what I needed to do to help us win some games. I went down and Red stepped up and he did his job. It just shows that there's no let off from our group.''

And no pecking order either. At least, not at the moment.

``At times this season we've had a running back by committee approach because none of them had been overly effective at that time,'' Tomlin said. ``When someone's effective, they'll get the ball.''

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Follow Will Graves at www.twitter.com/WillGravesAP

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Online:http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 andhttp://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

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USA TODAY Sports

Michal Kempny already promoted to top-four at Sunday's practice

After two games, it looks like Michal Kempny is already moving up in the lineup.

At Sunday’s practice, Kempny played on the team's second defensive pairing, lining up on the left of John Carlson. Previously, the Czech defenseman had been playing on the right of Brooks Orpik. The move to the left allows him to play on his natural side as he is a left-handed shot.

Here are the pairs from Sunday’s practice:

Dmitry Orlov – Matt Niskanen
Michal Kempny – John Carlson
Brooks Orpik – Christian Djoos
Jakub Jerabek – Madison Bowey

Acquired on Monday from the Chicago Blackhawks, Kempny has played in two games for the Capitals and has received glowing reviews thus far.

“He's a really good pro, that's what sticks out,” head coach Barry Trotz said. “He takes care of himself, he works at his game off the ice and with the guys, he has fit in very well.”

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“I've gotten to play a little bit with [Kempny] the last couple games,” Brooks Orpik said. “I think he's a guy that, he moves pretty well and he moves the puck pretty well and likes to keep things pretty simple. He's very consistent and predictable so he's very easy to play with.”

When the Capitals first acquired Kempny, it seemed like the best fit for him would be alongside Carlson. It’s a natural fit with Kempny being a left-shot and Carlson a righty. It also bumps down Christian Djoos to a third-pair role which is preferable to having a rookie in the top-four come the playoffs.

Should Kempny play well with Carlson, that would likely solidify Washington’s top two pairs. The Orlov-Niskanen pair was not going to be changed and Carlson was going to be on the second pair. The only question was who would ultimately play with him in the postseason?

The third pair, however, remains a work in progress.

The Caps will have to wait at least another day for the debut of their second recent acquisition as Jakub Jerabek cannot yet play due to visa issues and will miss Monday's game, reports Isabelle Khurshudyan.

Considering the issues Washington has had on defense, they would not have brought in another defenseman just to be a healthy scratch. He will get his shot to earn a spot in the lineup.

With two new defensemen in tow, obviously the team will need to experiment over the next few days and weeks to find the right combinations.

“We're going to have to probably spend at least the next 10 to 12 games doing that and then we'll have to sort of settle in,” Trotz said. “With eight defenseman, you sort of want to see which guys you’re going to play and who to play as partners and sort of a little bit of ranking. If someone goes down, who's filling that extra role?”

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2018 Big South Tournament Bracket, How to watch, Dates, Preview, Location

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2018 Big South Tournament Bracket, How to watch, Dates, Preview, Location

The Big South conference had a surprising start to their league play this year with preseason favorites UNC-Asheville and Winthrop losing two of their first three games.  Since, things have settled down in the Big South with those two squads separating themselves from the pack late in the season.

This 2017-18 season, the Big South is a single bid conference but does have opportunities to get a couple of teams into the NIT. Depending on how this tournament plays out, there may be two or three teams in the second biggest tournament in the country.

READ MORE: NCAA TOURNAMENT BUBBLE WATCH

Like always the tournament will be hosted at multiple sites. The first round will be on campus-sites with the No.7 and No. 8 teams hosting their respective games. From there, the remaining teams will head to Asheville, NC for two rounds as the Bulldogs earned the No. 1 seed. The highest remaining team will then host the championship game.

Home-court advantage will clearly be a factor for which ever team hosts, but it has also been a theme of the Big South. Combined, the entire conference is 88-38 at their home court. Only Liberty has a winning record on the road at 5-4. The host of the quarterfinals and semifinals, UNC-Asheville, is 13-1 at Kimmel Arena. The lone loss being against Liberty.

Only one year in this format, Winthrop won the championship in 2016-17 as the hosts.

TOURNAMENT INFORMATION:

When is the Big South Tournament?

The Big South Tournament will be Tues. Feb 27, March 1-2, and the Big South championship is on March 4.

Where is the Big South Tournament?
The Big South tournament will primarily be hosted at Kimmel Arena in Asheville, North Carolina. The higher seeds will host the first round match-ups. The Big South Championship will also be at the highest seed’s home court.

How to watch the Big South Tournament?

The Big South Tournament will be televised as a part of ESPN’s family of networks, excluding the first round. The first round can be seen on the Big South Network, the quarterfinals and semifinals will be streamed on ESPN3, and ESPN will televise the Big South Championship.

Who is the defending Big South Champion?

The Winthrop Eagles won the 2016-17 Big South Championship after hosting the main portion of the tournament. It was the Eagles 11th Big South Championship in their history, the most ever in the Big South.

2018 BIG SOUTH TOURNAMENT BRACKET:

First Round – Tuesday, Feb. 27

No. 9 Presbyterian at No. 8 Charleston Southern 7:00 pm (Big South Network/ Roku)
No. 10 Longwood at No. 7 High Point                     7:00 pm (Big South Network/ Roku)

Quarterfinals - Thursday, March 1

7/10 Winner vs. No. 2 Radford                     1:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
No. 6 Gardner-Webb vs. No. 3 Winthrop   3:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
8/9 Winner at No. 1 UNC Asheville              7:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
No. 5 Liberty vs. No. 4 Campbell                  9:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)

Semifinals - Friday, March 2

TBD vs. TBD                          6:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)
TBD vs. TBD                          8:00pm, at Asheville, NC (ESPN3)

Big South Championship - Sunday, March 4

TBD vs. TBD                          1:00pm, higher seed host (ESPN)

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PREVIEW:

Even as the No. 3 seed and losers of their last two games, Winthrop is probably still the favorite heading into the tournament. Their offense is one of the highest scoring in all of college basketball (80.7 ppg), with Xavier Cooks scoring 17.6 ppg (3rd in Big South). However, the Eagles’ offense is not powered entirely behind three-point shooting, it is done with balance on both sides of the ball. They have the best two-point shooting percentage in the league (47.3 percent), lead the Big South in rebounding averages, blocks, and field goal defense. In addition, their guards’ three point shooting ability is pretty good too at 37.5 percent and making 9.5 deep balls a game.

However, when they go quiet from long range or another team matches their three-point shooting for a contest, they are susceptible. Also as defending champs, they have been here before and are motivated to get back to the NCAA Tournament.

As the Big South tournament hosts, UNC Asheville will have a leg up on the competition, but they have not been as dominant as a top seed should be. The Bulldogs are one of the most consistent teams in the conference with all five starters scoring in double figures each game. If one is betting, they are the safe bet to win it all based on what is mentioned above.

While Radford was a pleasant surprise throughout league play, do not anticipate that they will be a contender. They are eighth in scoring in the conference (68.2) and around the same mark when it comes to shooting. Their defense has bailed them out as probably one of the top defensive units in the league, but their leading scorer is a post player, Ed Polite Jr.  (13.6 ppg) and if shut down in the paint, there is no offense.

Liberty is the darkhorse in the Big South Tournament. The do boast the best defensive numbers in the conference (64.0 points against per game) and have a high-powered offense, although it is spotty.  Two players are shooting well above 40 percent or better from behind the arc. Dominating the boards, they limit other team’s second chance opportunities. Do not bet against the Flames in a one-on-one contest.

PICK: No. 3 Winthrop