Steelers waiting for glut of running backs to sort themselves out
Five running backs. One football. Two weeks.
That's the Steelers' dilemma.
No team has run the ball better over the last 43 seasons than the Steelers — no one is close — but few ran it worse last season. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said they've got to get it fixed, and now, for the passing game to thrive, but what remains unsettled is who will be the primary running back Sept. 8 against Tennessee.
Le'Veon Bell, a rookie but still the favorite? Isaac Redman, who showed during a 147-yard game last season that he can be a force? Jonathan Dwyer, who is competing not just for a starting job but a job, period? LaRod Stephens-Howling, who will get the ball primarily on third down, not first or second? Or even Baron Batch, who earned his way last season with his special teams play?
With the starters unlikely to play much Aug. 29 at Carolina, the games Monday at Washington and Aug. 24 against the Chiefs could sort out the Steelers' complicated, unwieldy and, the way it is currently constructed, unworkable excess of running backs.
“I've got to go out there and earn the job,” Bell said Monday. “They're not going to give it to me regardless of where I was drafted or what the team needs.”
All of the backs will get time with the starters the next two weeks. The two games won't solely determine the starter — Haley said even walkthroughs are being thoroughly evaluated — but game action almost always dictates the final word.
And who will be the last man running?
“I wouldn't read anything into it in terms of the rotation, but the outcome of it will be a clear indicator of who's got the ability and how they rank,” running backs coach Kirby Wilson said Monday. “Visually, you'll be able to see some of that with how they perform with the first team offensive line.”
Bell was expected to get most of the first-team carries Saturday against the Giants, but a bruised knee kept him out. Stephens-Howling, the former Pitt running back who previously played with the Cardinals, took advantage of Bell's absence by carrying seven times for 40 yards behind an offensive line that repeatedly manhandled the Giants' defensive line.
“LaRod threw his hat into the ring and got us excited, which he's been doing out here,” Haley said. “When it happens in a game, that's a good thing.”
Redman started but got only two carries before being pulled, and he said it felt like “someone giving you a steak, then giving you two pieces and pulling it back.”
Bell, the second-round draft pick who led the Big Ten in rushing last season by averaging 137.92 yards per game for Michigan State, is exciting the Steelers at camp with his power running and attention to detail.
“I'm extremely pleased with the way he works, the way he's handling himself, the way he's preparing,” Wilson said. “His mindset is always focusing in on assignments and he hasn't had a mental error the entire camp, which is rare. I've never in my 16 years in the league seen that happen.”
Still, Wilson said, “That position, they determine it based on how they perform. I don't think that will change.
“The grades will pan out and guys who can make plays will make plays. The guys who continue to make mistakes and don't make plays, it will all sort itself out.”
The Steelers already know what Jonathan Dwyer (623 yards, 4.0 average in 2012) and Redman (410 yards, 3.7 average) can do. But if Bell can do what the Steelers anticipate he can do — and that's be a feature back-quality runner — it might not make any difference.
“Oh, gosh, I would have loved to have seen him Saturday night,” Wilson said.
Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.
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