One of the absolute worst moments from the miserable 8-8 season last year by the Pittsburgh Steelers was the loss in Cleveland. Eight turnovers doomed them that day in the Mistake by the Lake and it also epitomized the problems at running back for the Steelers as Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Rainey all fumbled away the ball that afternoon.
In an attempt to make sure that never happens again, the Steelers no longer have Mendenhall and Rainey around and drafted Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell in the second round of this year’s draft.
Many Steelers’ fans are already penciling in Bell as the opening day starter and while I appreciate the optimism, they need to slow the heck down. Dwyer and Redman aren’t just going to step aside for Bell to take the job. They have NFL game experience and a full year in Todd Haley’s offense under their respective belts.
It’s true Bell has an advantage from a pure ability standpoint but he has much to prove and the Steelers haven’t even strapped on the pads yet.
Several reports have already declared that both Redman and Dwyer are in tremendous shape. In Redman’s case is down 10-15 pounds and looks good while Dwyer reports he is in “the best shape of his life.” I’m not sure what to take from that considering this was a guy that two seasons ago had almost eaten his way off the roster.
I’ve stated on several occasions and most recently yesterday on my Trib-Live Radio spot with Daniel Dudley (yes this is a shameless plug) that I believe Dwyer will open as the starter. That isn’t a knock on Bell or even Redman. I just believe that Dwyer will offer the offense the most in terms of stability in the all-around running back game. We know he runs exceptionally hard and can catch the ball decently and perhaps most importantly is that he understands the role of pass protection from his RB spot.
If Bell passes that test with flying colors in the preseason, then I’ll be more than happy to admit I was wrong if he opens as the starter but as Coach Tomlin says, “So far we’ve played football in shorts.” Translation: We don’t know much about any of these rookies yet.
Both Redman and Dwyer have shown flashes of being full-time backs in the NFL but often times as soon as they show up big they seem to shrivel back into mediocrity. Dwyer led the Steelers last year in rushing with 623 yards and two scores. While it’s certainly nice to lead the team in rushing, it would be preferred if that number were significantly higher than 623.
Redman had about half as many carries as Dwyer and rushed for 410 yards and also had two touchdowns. Like Dwyer, he had runs that were awe-inspiring with their physicality and determination. Those moments just weren’t consistent enough for either man as they would look pedestrian just moments later.
Two other guys who will look for roster spots are LaRod
Stephens-Howling, signed in free agency just before the draft and Baron Batch who enters his third season. Batch you may recall was a training camp hero until blowing out his knee towards the end of training camp in 2011. Batch had just 49 yards on 25 carries last year. I have to believe his spot on the roster is in serious question.
Stephens-Howling comes over from Arizona. He had 356 yards on 110 carries last season and added four touchdowns. At 5′ 7″ 185 lbs, he’ll be the change-of-pace guy the Steelers have liked in third down situations. Stephens-Howling has seen his numbers increase across the board in first four seasons in the league and the Steelers hope that continues.
There was one area of decline that could see an increase for Stephens-Howling however and that’s in the kickoff return game. He returned 57 kicks in 2010 and just 18 last season. With the Steelers looking to spell both Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders in the return game, Stephens-Howling could see some action in that department.
The only other back on the roster is former USC Trojan Curtis McNeal who signed as a rookie free agent. He had a 1,000 yard season in his 2011 at Southern Cal and then had over 700 yards last fall for the Trojans. I would label him a long-shot to make the roster at this point.
The Steelers clearly targeted Bell in the draft to be their running back of the future. What they will not do however is throw him in there immediately if he can’t fulfill his obligations in all facets of the running back position. Running Backs’ coach Kirby Wilson has said as much. Therefore, I believe Dwyer will start the season as the number one back. Bell and Stephens-Howling will also make the squad with Batch needing to rely on his special teams abilities to give him a shot.
Redman may become the odd man out in 2013.
Marc Uhlmann writes for and co-owns www.steelcityblitz.com. Follow him on Twitter @steeldad and follow the website at @SCBlitz. He can be heard Mondays on Trib-Live Radio at 4pm ET talking Steelers.