Running Back by Committee? First Let’s Try Steelers Keeping RB1 & RB2 Healthy for a Full Season

The Steelers failure to reach a long-term deal with Le’Veon Bell has prompted many fans to call for Pittsburgh to lift the franchise tag, let Le’Veon Bell walk and rely on running back by committee.

Sounds feasible on paper. (Actually it doesn’t.) But even if it, there’s a problem:

  • During Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have struggled to keep their 1st and 2nd string running backs healthy.

The tendency took root in 2007 and has continued almost unabated since then. In 2007, Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until “the wheels fell off.” The wheels fell off in week 16, forcing the Steelers to start Najeh Davenport in the playoffs with Verron Haynes coming off the couch as a backup.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell injured in the 2014 season finale vs. Bengals. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP, via SportsNet.ca

In 2008 the Steelers planned to use both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. A week 3 Willie Parker injury led to Mendenhall’s first start in week 4, where Baltimore broke his collar bone. Fortunately, the Steelers had solid running back depth with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell filling the void until Parker’s return.

  • The Steelers kept their top two running backs relatively healthy in 2009 and 2010, with Willie Parker only missing a handful of games in ’09.

The Steelers streak continued in 2011 until Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale against Cleveland, as Isaac Redman started in the playoff Tebowing in Denver (for the record, Redman rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries.)

In 2012 the Steelers employed a variant of running back by committee, rotating carries and starts between Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall. Injuries contributed to this situation, but Mike Tomlin also wanted one of the trio to establish himself as the starter. None of them did.

  • The Steelers unhealthy running back syndrom returned with a vengeance in 2013.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell injured his Lisfranc in Latrobe, leaving Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones as the running back committee. Problem? LaRod Stephens-Howling’s Steeler career ended after 8 touches and Isaac Redman was already playing with injures that would end his career before Halloween.

In 2014 the Steelers made a wise disciplinary move in cutting LeGarrette Blount, but that forced them to sign Ben Tate after Le’Veon Bell’s pre-playoff injury. In 2015 injuries and suspension limited Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to 5 join appearances, and DeAngelo Williams season finale injury at Cleveland forced Pittsburgh to start Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs.

Any plans the Steelers had to spell Le’Veon Bell with DeAngelo Williams in 2016 went out the window when Williams injured his knee in week 6, limiting the tandem to 4 games together.

And of course last season the Steelers only opted to give James Conner a handful of carries, but an injury against New England in week 14 forced the Steelers to sign Stevan Ridley two weeks before the playoffs.

Calk it up to fate or chalk it up to mistake, but Mike Tomlin cannot seem to kept his top two running backs healthy, which doesn’t bode well for a shift to running back by committee. Or does it?

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises authors against plotting out stories in favor of putting characters in situations and then following them to their conclusion. King’s lesson is relevant to sports blogging, because sometimes your conclusions can morph into something else as you write.

  • This is one of those times.

Mike Tomlin has seen his running backs suffer injuries early in the season (Parker and Mendenhall in ’08, Bell and Redman in ’13, Bell in ’15 and Williams in ’16.) But the most devastating running back injuries have occurred late in the season (Mendenhall in ’11, Bell in ’14, Williams in ’15, Bell in the 2016 AFC Championship).

Both the laws of attrition and laws of probability would suggest that running back by committee could mitigate these dangers.

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

In the final analysis, I’m not ready to join the chorus calling for the Steelers to rescind the franchise tag and part ways with Bell. This tweet sheds a little light on my thinking:

That isn’t to say that the Chuck Noll’s offenses struggled to run the ball with Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie. They didn’t. Nor could Mark Malone and David Woodley provide the type of air support that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown provide today.

  • But Le’Veon Bell offers more to the Steelers 2018 offense than would a modern day equivalent of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie.

And James Conners, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels have yet to prove they’re modern day equivalents of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie. But perhaps they can provide the type of quality and quantity of depth at running back behind Le’Veon Bell that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed since 2008….

…You remember, the season that ended at Super Bowl XLIII.

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Pittsburgh Steelers 2014 NFL Draft Needs: Running Back

The 2013 NFL Draft was unique in that no running backs were taken in the first round, as sign of rules changes which are heavily tilting the game in favor of the pass. Several team grabbed running backs in the second round, including the Pittsburgh Steelers.

  • Now is the time to examine the Steelers draft needs at running back in 2014.

The Steelers of course took Le’Veon Bell in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft and, after an injury-slowed start, Bell gave them a lot of reason to have faith that he is “their” running back for the foreseeable future.

  • Outside of Will Johnson, however, the Steelers have looked at their current crop of rushers and found them wanting.

Jonathan Dwyer is now in Pittsburgh West, Isaac Redman found himself cut at mid-season and remains teamless, as does Felix Jones. The Steelers did sign LeGarrette Blount, who should provide excellent depth at a very fair salary cap value. After that, the cupboard is thin, very thin.

Outside of Le’veon Bell, LeGarrette Blount and Johnson, and Blount, the Steelers have Alvester Alexander and Miguel Maysonet under contract, neither of which has an NFL regular season to his name, although both have practice squad experience. In addition to Jones, the Steelers could bring back LaRod Stephens-Howling after June first.

Steelers Need RB Depth in the Draft

Times change. The Pittsburgh Steelers started the 2000 season with Jerome Bettis, Richard Huntley, and Amos Zereoue at half back, and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala and Jon Witman at fullback, both of whom were capable of carrying the ball. They also had Dan Krieder on the practice squad.

steelers 2014 nfl draft needs priorities running back

  • That’s 6 running backs who had or would get significant NFL starting experience.

However, when one says “The Steelers need running back depth” 2000 is not even remotely close to the standard. No, the Steelers last year appeared more than content to go with 3 half backs and 1 full back on the regular season roster, and it could be the same again in 2014.

However, they will not depend on Alexander or Maysonet to deliver that depth, nor would they likely rely on Stephens-Howling as a reserve, should they choose to bring him back. That means the Steelers will be looking to add depth.

  • But don’t expect them to add a running back early.

The Steelers running back needs in the 2014 NFL Draft should be considered moderate.

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Steelers Free Agent Focus: What to Do about Jonathan Dwyer

NFL free agency involves three distinct working parts, the incumbent team, the player and potential suitors. Often times these three actors come to the table with three distinct motives and interests and that’s what makes the case of Jonathan Dwyer so interesting.

Capsule Profile of Jonathan Dwyer with the Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers picked Jonathan Dwyer in the 6th round of the 2010 NFL Draft. At the time many wondered how a player who’d had such a productive career could slip so far. Word was that Dwyer dazzled during OTA’s and mini camp.

Then camp training amp where Dywer showed up overweight and out of shape. Only and a late preseason surge saved his roster spot. Ditto 2011. Dwyer again showed up overweight and out of shape and only injuries to Baron Batch a late season surge saved his spot.

Dwyer nonetheless showed himself to be a player of some potential, making a hundred yard performance in his first start in 2011 vs. Tennessee. He didn’t see many other carries, and finished the year on IR.

In 2012 injuries to Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman would give Dwyer his greatest opportunity. Dwyer fumbled vs. Oakland but rebounded to have 100 yard games vs. the Redskins and Bengals. It seems odd now, but people were even making comparisons between Dwyer and Jerome Bettis. Yet Dwyer could not establish himself as a starter he descended into mediocrity with the rest of the Steelers offense during the second half of 2012.

Dwyer’s agent talked a good game about landing a home for his client, but Dwyer watched the season opener from his couch.

When injuries robbed the Steelers of LaRod Stephens-Howling, Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert turned to Dwyer. Knowing this was his final shot at an NFL dream, Dwyer ran ever carry as if it were is last, and excelled in short yardage.

The Case for Keeping Dwyer

If his words and deeds in 2013 are any indication, Dwyer’s stint on the unemployment line caused a change of heart. Dwyer’s not going to be a number 1 NFL back, no matter what city he’s playing in. But he’s shown in Pittsburgh that he can be a good number 2 back and a good short yardage specialist.

In that light the Steelers seemingly have a chance to bring in a solid player who knows the offense for a reasonably cap friendly contract.

The Case for Letting Dwyer Walk

Once they’re on a roster for a season opener, the contracts of NFL vested veterans are guaranteed. Signing bonuses, and Dwyer would get one in some form or fashion, are of course guaranteed. Dwyer knows that. And he is a player with a history of mailing it in, or as a player whose sense of urgency is less than constant.

The Steelers are set for their starting running back with Le’Veon Bell. Do they really want to trust the back up role to a player with such a checkered track record?

Curtain’s Call on Dwyer

At the end of the day the Steelers decision comes down to whether they think Dwyer turned over a new leaf in 2013, or whether his motivation was really just a fleeting fancy.

  • Steel Curtain Rising’s call is for the Steelers to bring back Jonathan Dwyer, but with the caveat that the signing bonus of any second contract must be rock bottom. 

If Dwyer balks at that or if some other team is foolish enough to open the check book for him, the Steelers need to let him walk.

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Steelers Come Up Small in Preseason vs. Giants, Lose 18-13

Its only August football, but Mike Tomlin cannot like what he saw as the Pittsburgh Steelers looked pretty sloppy in their 18-13 preseason loss to the New York Giants.

Steel Curtain Rising’s Golden Rule of Preseason is that while results don’t mean much exhibition games do tend to revealing about individual units and provide a good look at individuals.

Steelers Struggles vs. Giants

In that respect, Danny Smith’s special teams debut left a lot to be desired, with one blocked punt, and two kick off fielding errors on the part of rookie J.D. Woods and David Gilreath.

Rookie quarterback and fourth round draft pick Landry Jones had a difficult night, botching a hand off to Baron Batch leading to a fumble. Batch himself entered the game as one Steeler who was fighting for his NFL life, and he did not help his cause rushing 5 times for 4 yards.

Bruce Gradkowski, while going 6/11 had trouble connecting with his receivers, and was described by Behind the Steel Curtain as possibly “attempting to thin out the wide receiving corps.”

Jason Worilds did make his presence known by registering a sack, but also got noticed the wrong way with two roughing the passer fouls in two minutes.

Steelers Success vs. Giants

The star of the offense was LaRod Stephens-Howling who led all rushers with 40 yards on seven carries. Rookie Marcus Wheaton also looked good, as did David Paulson, although Michael Palmer, signed just a few days ago, got the starting nod.

The real “stars” of the game were the Steelers linebackers, with first round draft pick Jarvis Jones recovering a fumble and defending a pass. Adrian Robinson, who was reportedly having a rough time at St. Vincents, scored the Steelers only touchdown on an botched snap. Rookies Vince Williams and Brian Rolle also looked good in Behind the Steel Curtain’s estimation.

  • Rounding out the Steelers success on defense was Al Woods, who lead the team with 9 takcles, 1 sack, 2 tackles for losses, and 1 QB hit.

The Steelers picked up Al Woods off of waivers from the Saints in 2010, after New Orleans cut their then rookie draft pick. Woods then bounced around between Tampa Bay, Seattle’s, and Pittsburgh’s active rosters and practice squads.

Performance like Woods’ put in vs. the Giants will earn him a permanent home.

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