Steelers running backs running out of time to grab starting position
Five days from now, the Steelers won't be able to assuage themselves by saying it's only the preseason. It won't be.
And their running game will be that much closer to starting the new season much like it ended last season — without an identifiable feature back or any real expectation it will be the effective counterbalance the passing game needs to thrive.
The Steelers were determined not to spend this season like they did 2012, when three running backs made at least four starts, and the run game was effective only during a brief four-game stretch.
Yet here they are again, the new season fast approaching but no certifiable starter at running back and no continuity when anyone other than Ben Roethlisberger handles the ball in the backfield.
Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and now Felix Jones are part of a crowded mix in which one will wind up as a starter and at least one likely will get cut.
Le'Veon Bell's mid-foot sprain cost him not only a season-opening start, it has created a race for the finish line mentality at the one offensive position, except for quarterback, coaches most want to have a starter identified early.
Because Redman missed the past two games with a pinched nerve, the fourth and least-important preseason game Thursday at Carolina might have some meaning.
The Steelers still need to find a starter for their Sept. 8 opener against Tennessee, and this will be the last chance for all of the backs to mount their argument.
“I'm going in with the mindset of playing,” said Dwyer, who started Saturday. “I'm just going to get myself ready to play.”
There wasn't much separation Saturday night, when Jones ran for a team-high 29 yards against the Chiefs one day after being traded by Philadelphia, and Dwyer ran for 25 yards. Both had eight carries.
“I haven't gotten anything like that just yet,” Jones said when asked if the Steelers identified his role. “I'm going to go to practice, try to learn the playbook and make the best of it.”
Perhaps that best sums up the state of the Steelers' running game: The man who might start the opener still doesn't know the playbook, though it's no fault of his own.
“Not being able to practice and then coming in and playing a game?” Jones said. “That was different.”
Offensive coordinator Todd Haley came in last season determined to prioritize the run. Yet, as he begins his second season, his personnel might not allow him to do that.
The Steelers have rushed for only 286 yards in three games and, unless they ramp up that production, Roethlisberger won't be able to use the play-action pass effectively because defenses won't fear the run.
“But I think we were able to use the play action (against the Chiefs) and if the play action is going good, it means we're running effectively,” Dwyer said. “Everybody's worried about us running the ball, so that's a good thing for us.”
But will it be good enough when they're running it against starters an entire game?
“I'm not evaluating any part of it,” coach Mike Tomlin said of his offense. “I'm evaluating the complete body of work. It wasn't good enough.”