The Steelers Depot countdown to Latrobe is now under 30 days and we will now move forward with our training camp previews and focus in today on the running back position.
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Overview: The running back position has officially undergone the changing of the guard as free agent Willie Parker was allowed to seek work elsewhere after Rashard Mendenhall took over the primary ball carrying role in the offense. The Steelers running game had few bright spots last year and Mendenhall did improve as the year went on. Right now the position is very young outside of veteran Mewelde Moore and it has the characteristics of a power running game.
Rashard Mendenhall (AP Photo)
2009 saw Rashard grow up in the NFL. Head coach Mike Tomlin benched him in the first game versus the Bengals for apparently not knowing the playbook or his assignments. Mendenhall responded the next week against the Chargers and rushed for 165 yards on 29 carries. It ended up being the best rushing day of the season for the Steelers. Mendenhall went on to rush for 1100 yards on the season and started to look like the back the Steelers were hoping he would be after selecting him with their first round pick in the 2008 draft. Mendenhall improved on his pass protection as well as the season progressed and looks to carry the load early on in 2010 for a Steelers offense that will be without quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for at least 4 weeks to start the season. The Steelers will look to use a fullback this season according to reports and Mendenhall has come out in support of it. He will have to learn to be a bit more patient and trusting when running behind one. The power running game looks to return this year and Mendenhall has shown he can run inside and outside now. He also will be pressed by rookie Jonathan Dwyer, who was drafted in the sixth round this year and could see Dwyer dip into his carries later in the season in attempt to keep him fresher. Do not be surprised to see Mendenhall in more on 3rd downs as well in 2010. Just as his pass blocking has improved, so has his pass catching abilities. This will enable the Steelers to not tip their hands so much on 3rd and shorts and also will keep defenses honest to the screen game. 1500 yards is a distinct possibility for Rashard in 2010 and if the Steelers make it to the playoffs, he will be huge reason why.
Mewelde Moore (AP Photo)
When Mike Tomlin arrived from Minnesota, he brought Mewelde Moore with him. Moore is the type of player that gives 100% every play and does every job asked of him. He provides depth in the kick return game and knows his role as a 3rd down back. He can catch out the back field and take on linebackers in pass blocking. Moore is not a 20 plus carry guy. He is what he is and that is a role playing veteran. Moore is in the final year of his contract and likely in his last season wearing the black and gold. His job is to continue to mentor Mendenhall as well pointing rookie Dwyer in the right directions as well. Mewelde will likely start the season as the second string running back, but only until Dwyer is up to speed. If Rashard were to go down injured, Mewelde would likely become the permanent 3rd down back as Dwyer would likely get the bulk of the carries. It also should be noted that his spot on the 53 man roster is not a lock. While pretty safe, right now, he is more on the bubble end of things, but I think he should stick.
Jonathan Dwyer (AP Photo)
Dwyer is a sixth round pick that has nothing but upside. He was the fullback in Georgia Tech’s offense and has a lot of unknown variables because of it. He can break tackles in the open field, but there is not a ton of footage on him running between the tackles. This along with a suspicious blood test for a drug he took to help with his ADD problem caused him to slip down late in the draft. Like any rookie running back coming into the league, he has to learn the little things. Pass protection and reads being the primary things. He will also be tested early in the pre-season on his ability to run out of a deeper set in the backfield as well as running inside. How fast he develops, will decide if he gets a helmet on Sunday early on in the season. Do not be surprised if the undrafted Isaac Redman gets a higher billing on the depth chart when the season starts. Dwyer’s biggest contribution may be in short yardage situations or even as a lead blocking fullback. Training camp will start to solve most of these little mysteries as soon as the pads go on in Latrobe. The Steelers do not have much invested in him, so either he will sink or swim early on.
Isaac Redman (AP Photo)
No player caused a stir amongst the fans in 2009 like Isaac Redman did. It all started last pre-season as Redman was anointed Redzone Redman by Steeler Nation. After the hype died down, Redman still found himself on the practice squad and was brought up briefly when Willie Parker was sidelined. Redman has a ton of practices under his belt now and indeed has a chance to make the final 53 man roster this year. He will battle the rookie Dwyer for a game day helmet early on more than likely and could see carries in short yardage situations early in the season as well. How he does in special teams and the other little nuances a running back should master will decide his longer term fate. It is not out of the question for him to be number 2 on the depth chart all season long as well. He certainly will push Mendenhall and Dwyer as well.
Frank Summers (AP Photo)
Ah, Frank The Tank. Another fan favorite last year in Latrobe, Frank had problems adapting to the NFL in his first season, mostly because of his blocking skills. A back injury ended up cutting his season short and surgery soon followed. His has proclaimed himself healthy now and looks to make the 53 man roster primarily as a fullback and special teams player. He also could get a few looks in short yardage situations as well. It will be a tough Summer for Summers, but if healthy, has a great chance at making the 53 man roster. Watch closely how and where the Steelers line him up at Latrobe. If it is at a true blocking fullback position, he has a shot. If he is forced to continue to work mostly as an H-back/tight end role, he could lose out.
Justin Vincent (AP Photo)
It will take several minor miracles for Justin Vincent to make the 53 man roster as there are just no spots on the roster for him. He is more of a 3rd down type running back and is more or less a player to take practice reps. He could be a candidate once again for the practice squad, but even that looks bleak as of right now. He will get some extended carries in pre-season games to try to impress the other teams around the league, but is merely a camp body heading into Latrobe. His only outside shot is an injury to Mewelde Moore, but even then it is not a guarantee.
Demetrius Taylor (AP Photo)
Taylor is an undrafted free agent and converted defensive lineman. He played fullback in high school and was told at his Virginia Tech pro day most teams were interested in him at that position as he was undersized as a defensive lineman for the NFL. Early word is he likes contact. He will get plenty of that in Latrobe. The Steelers always seem to have one undrafted player make the 53 man roster every year. Could Taylor be that guy in 2010? It is not unthinkable, but he would have to wow the coaches as well as contribute on special teams. If he does make it, it surely will be at the expense of Frank Summers as well. Listen for some loud pops at training camp as it could involve Demetrius in them.
Stefan Logan (AP Photo)
Is it fair to list Pinball with the running backs? Not really, but you have to list him somewhere other than just a kick returner/specialist. Make no mistake though, that is exactly how he made the roster in 2009. He performed well enough that the Steelers couldn\’t cut him. 2010 signals a new batch of rookies and Logan will have to wow everyone all over again. The 53 man roster fills up quick and the Steelers drafted a few wide receivers that look to get chances at returning kicks and punts as well. Several will argue Logan should be listed as a wide receiver, but if he makes the team as such, something horrible has happened during training camp. Steeler Nation needs to face that he he is a one trick pony and I have a feeling the Steelers want multi-talented horses instead.
Likely Training Camp Depth Chart:
RB1 Rashard Mendenhall
RB2 Mewelde Moore
RB3 Isaac Redman
RB4 Jonathan Dwyer
RB5 Justin Vincent
RB6 Stefan Logan
FB1 Frank Summers
FB2 Demetrius Taylor
Summation: The loss of Big Ben early on puts the onus on the running game. The Steelers also look for more balance as well as running when they need to run. Much of the success of the running game will depend on the offensive line play that is already down right tackle Willie Colon. Mendenhall, Redman and Dwyer all look the part of a power running game and with Moore mixed in, has the look of a deep unit. The little things like pass protection and missed assignments is the thing you worry about the most with such a young outfit. If indeed the Steelers go back to using a fullback more, Summers should fill the role nicely. This unit has the smash mouth feel to it and expect improved production over 2009. Kirby Wilson is a good position coach and will have this group ready by week 1.