By Jeremy Hritz
When you think of the Pittsburgh Steelers and the running game, the names Harris, Bettis, Foster, and Parker come to mind. When you think of running backs on the current Steelers team, the names don’t exactly conjure up images of broken tackles, big runs, and streaks of 100-yard games.
Consistency was a serious issue for the 2012 Steelers across the board, but at no other position did it have more of a deleterious impact than at the position of running back. While Isaac Redman began the season as the starter, he did not finish the season that way, as Rashard Mendenhall and Jonathan Dwyer also started games. Despite earning the title of starter, the Steelers ball carriers did not necessarily get the touches a starter traditionally has received in Pittsburgh, as the offense relied on a runner-by-committee approach, even when Mike Tomlin anointed Dwyer as “the guy” near the end of the season.
The final result? A wretched ground game that ranked 26th overall in the NFL, averaging 96.1 yards per game and an inglorious 3.7 yards per carry, the worst output from a Steelers team since 2003 when the Steelers finished 6-10 (that team averaged 93 yards per game).
What is obvious for the Steelers to improve in the 2013 season is that they must commit to one runner. Whether or not they have a back that they can confidently commit to is debatable. If they had any confidence in any of the backs that are currently on the roster, then why wouldn’t they have stuck with them throughout the season, or even throughout games?
There is no question that Redman and Dwyer are excellent back-ups, but feature backs they are not. Feature backs can take over games, can convert third downs, and be counted on to hold on to the football. And while Redman and Dwyer both had quality performances this year against the Giants, Bengals, and Redskins, those performances could not be sustained throughout the season.
Mendenhall is not a feature back either, though he has put up good numbers in his career. His erratic play, not to mention his erratic behavior, including his insubordination to the Steelers organization when he skipped a game, have all but sealed his fate with the team. Mendenhall is too much headache and heartache (see fumble in Super Bowl) instead of homeruns and bringing him back would not improve the running game in 2013, not even if he is healthy.
While the Steelers will resign both Redman and Dwyer and will have Chris Rainey and Baron Batch on the roster at the position, they will be in need of a back that can carry a heavy load dependably.
So what are their options?
While the Steelers will most likely draft a running back with the intention of him becoming the starter in April, it is doubtful they would select one in the first few rounds because of the needs at other positions. The Redskins showed this past season with Alfred Morris that there is starter talent to be found later on in drafts.
The better option could come through free agency, as the St. Louis Rams have voided the final contract year of Steven Jackson per his request, and he will hit the open market in March. While not normally active in free agency, the Steelers will want to take a long, thoughtful look at Jackson, who is a physical runner that fits the traditional mold for a Steelers running back. Jackson wants to play for a winner, and at age 29, he probably would not command an obnoxious price tag. Jackson would provide an immediate boost at a position where there is a great need. The question ultimately would be is could the Steelers make it work with their current salary cap situation?
Less likely, though just as good, if not better than Jackson, would be negotiating a trade for Maurice Jones-Drew, whose dissatisfaction with the Jacksonville Jaguars is well documented. While the Jaguars would likely want too much for Jones-Drew, it wouldn’t hurt to at least feel the Jaguars out in regards to a trade.
Or, if all else remains the status quo and the Steelers resign Redman and Dwyer and then add a back via the draft in the later rounds, they just need to make a commitment and stick to it. While consistency at the running back position is not as important as it is at the quarterback position, we witnessed this year the impact that it can have on production.
This much is for certain: if 2013 is another season of musical chairs at the running back position, not only will they rival the 2003 Steelers rushing attack, but they will also be watching playoff games from home for another year.