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Bell joins Dwyer, Redman in pursuit of Steelers' feature back role

| Sunday, July 28, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers running backs Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer go through drills during practice Saturday, July 27, 2013, at St. Vincent in Latrobe.

A sense of urgency gripped running backs Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman soon after Michigan State runner Le'Veon Bell was drafted by the Steelers in the second round.

Coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert were disappointed in the ground game's lack of production in 2012. The Steelers averaged 96.1 rushing yards to rank 26th in the NFL, and they had 11 games in which they rushed for less than 100 yards — including seven for 75 yards or less.

A consistently ineffective run game created added stress for offensive coordinator Todd Haley. More important, it demanded more from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who struggled at times to adapt to an unfamiliar offense that starved for balance.

With the battle lines drawn, the Steelers opened training camp Saturday at St. Vincent amid intermittent rain in search of a feature back — Redman or Dwyer or Bell.

“It's most definitely going to be a battle,” Dwyer said. “We've got guys with experience and a guy with no experience. There's no specific order right now, but everyone is gunning for the No. 1 spot and certain roles.

“Everyone is excited about competing and making each other better. We have to make the best of every opportunity we have.”

“We all want to be the guy that makes things happen or make the team go,” Dwyer added. “At every level, if you can't run the ball, you're not going to be successful.”

The Steelers were at their best last season when the ground game clicked. Dwyer and Redman strung together three consecutive 100-yard games — Cincinnati, Washington and New York Giants — to spark a four-game winning streak that put them at 6-3 before a second-half collapse dashed their playoff hopes.

The numbers aside, the ground game suffered mostly because injuries dictated an inordinate number of lineup changes on the offensive line. But the Steelers averaged only 65 yards in their first three games while the offensive line was still healthy and intact.

For a team in which “next man up” is a familiar refrain, injuries were hardly an acceptable excuse.

“It's good to have a good group of guys up front consistently, game after game, but it shouldn't matter who's up there,” said Dwyer, who led the team in rushing with 623 yards on 156 attempts. “Whoever is running the ball has to make positive yardage.”

Also, the Steelers started a different feature back eight times. Redman started the first three games, and Dwyer started the last three, mostly because Rashard Mendenhall never recovered completely from a knee injury.

“The crazy thing is the games we did well, there was one running back in there the whole time,” said Redman, who averaged 3.7 yards on 110 carries in 2012. “It's going to be competition, so I have to prepare myself to compete. I didn't come here to be a third-down back. I came here to compete for the starting job.”

Redman, who suffered ankle and hip injuries last season, said the added competition fueled him.

The offensive line, too, has something to prove. With two starters — guard Willie Colon and tackle Max Starks — gone from last year's Week 1 lineup, guard Ramon Foster said the offensive front could decide which running back will carry the load against Tennessee on Sept. 8 at Heinz Field.

“We have to be really good because those guys are going to be better,” Foster said. “If we give them the looks they're supposed to have, you can see who the clear winner is or whether they are co-starters. The offensive line has to set the tone. It starts with us, so it'll be a shame to have those guys competing and they're getting blown up in the backfield. It's all about us providing room for them to run.

“I think we have a lot of potential. We have to pull everything together, and training camp is where it starts. We want to do everything to turn the ground game around.”

Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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