Running back LaRod Stephens-Howling streaks toward his 73-yard touchdown last weekend.
From the time he arrived in college, LaRod Stephens-Howling was compared to Darren Sproles. It made sense, both in size and the way they were used on the football field.
Stephens-Howling watches what the Saints have Sproles do. Or what Reggie Bush does with the Dolphins. "We have put in plays, 'Hey, watch Reggie Bush here, this is what we want you to do," the Cardinals' running back said. "It's a copycat league."
Not every team has a Sproles or Stephens-Howling. But it's useful if a team does, tangible proof being the 73-yard touchdown Stephens-Howling scored Sunday on a simple dump pass. The Cards have the Hyphen, just like the Saints brought in Sproles when they lost Bush, or the Seahawks have Leon Washington. The Patriots have Danny Woodhead. Even the Ravens, who host the Cards Sunday, used Ray Rice to a certain extent that way when he entered the league, before he was seen as having full-time back potential.
Stephens-Howling already makes an impact as a special teamer, having proven himself as a dynamic kickoff return man. That has been lost a bit with the new kickoff rules, all the more reason to want to weave him into the offense more often.
"It's a challenge," offensive coordinator Mike Miller said. "You have to pick your spots and get him into the game plan where he has a few touches at least. When you can do that, play to his strengths, get him in space, a run plan where he can really see it develop in front of him and he can pick and choose.
"It's kind of fun. 'Hey, you've got this weapon here, how can we best use him?' "
There was a certain amount of relief for Stephens-Howling on his touchdown. After hurting his hand in the opener – and missing the next two games because of it – he hadn't made much of an impact.
His longest kickoff return is 33 yards in only 12 tries, dented by. He has just five rushing attempts (for 16 yards) and aside from his touchdown, has only three other receptions for 14 yards.
"I was real discouraged about my performance thus far this season," Stephens-Howling said. "It felt good to get my hands on the ball and get it to the end zone."
Center Lyle Sendlein marveled at the way Stephens-Howling can use his 5-foot-7 frame to his advantage, hiding behind blockers. Even if the line doesn't quite do its job sometimes and fail to block a linebacker at the next level, "the 'backer didn't see him and he sprung out the other side," Sendlein said.
In a season thus far gasping for playmakers, the Cardinals would love to involve him more often. There is a fine line with that too, Miller said. Stephens-Howling is so important on special teams – he is one of the top cover men on punts and kicks, as well as the kickoff return man – the Cardinals can't afford to wear him down on offense.
He also plays more physically than his frame would suggest, another reason to proceed with caution.
Having a change-of-pace back helps, Miller said, "but we are looking for playmakers in any size and shape. If he's small and has the jitterbug effect, great. If there is a guy 6-4, 210, who can roll with 4.3 speed, that's fine too. However it comes."
Sometimes, it comes via the Hyphen, and the Cards could use more of plays like the one against Pittsburgh.
"There are a lot of weapons on our offense and only one ball to go around," Stephens-Howling said. "You have to be patient with it."