In Need For A Lead: Steelers Need A Feature Runner in 2013

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.

  • Garrett Hunt

    I still don’t think the Dwyer projet is over

  • tequila0341

    I don’t think the Steelers can realistically afford what MJD or Steven Jackson want to get paid. Remember, this is going to be probably their last big-money contract, and they want that last big payday. It’s not in the Steelers’ SOP to overpay for older players, much less older RBs. Moreover, we simply don’t have the salary cap space. We’ll be lucky to match what Keenan Lewis and Ramon Foster command on the open market, or retain James Harrison.

  • Clint Martin

    Steven Jackson might be 29 but Not 1 Steeler running back is even close to his talent our abilities. He could take us back to the promise land! He is the type of feature back that makes a team better right now!

  • grw1960

    1- you are right the Steelers need a better all round RB that has good vision , ability to find the opening and jump cut at the line.
    Redman 3d down, short yardage and Dwyer to finsh games. But the Steelers need a RB that can get things started..
    2- The OL has to improve and be more consistant at run Blocking. I think they can do that if they stay healthy.
    3- I think the Steelers need to find a young RB for the future rather that get a stop gap FA.
    It is a long shot but if he has the right character. A sophomore RB Jawan Jamison, Rutgers has declared. He could be a project, 3d -4th round, pysically similar to Ray Rice

  • Clint Martin

    They need a back that has good field vision can actually read a block and one that explodes through the hole every down.

  • john david

    In applauding the idea of Steven Jackson, remember a few years ago we picked up a reclamation project….a guy named Jerome Bettis,and I think we would agree that he did a fairly good job(tongue in cheek)…. and the rest is history…!!!.As I recall, he came from the same team as SJ……..
    Look into it, Black and Gold.

  • JohnnyV1

    Special RB’s are hard to find. There aren’t many in the league, less than 10. In 2012, there were only 6 RB’s over 1,300 yds, 4 more over 1,200 yds. And very few last for more than a 5-6 yrs. Steelers don’t need a special one, although it’d be nice. They need one for 1,200+ yds a season to go along with Redman & whomever they have for 3rd down, a speed type player (perhaps it’s Rainey).

  • Weiss Chad

    I think Monte ball fits the Steelers.Would be a good pick up in third.Even though I have them taking Brandon Jenkins in that spot.I wouldn’t rule out stephon taylor or eddie lacey

  • Maurice_hill_district

    Thanks for inserting reality, U are 100% correct on all that. Talking getting FAs of other teams is nothing but fun dreamin, bcause it aint happening for Steelers. Bettis & Kevin Green were ages ago.

  • Kysteeler

    It really comes down to sticking with the same back. I would like to see our starting RB get at least 70% of the carries next year. I personally like Joseph Randle, however there are many good mid-round RBs in the draft this year.

  • Garrett Hunt

    Marcus Lattimore is a special RB if he comes back to what he was prior to injury.

  • Tom

    Signing Jackson or using a high draft choice RB would be welcome news to me. Though I am not convinced that Barry Sanders in his prime would do much behind last years offensive line. ESPN had an interesting article a few weeks ago that rated all the O lines in the NFL, based on yardage before first contact. Not surprisingly, the Steelers O line ranked dead last at #32. Watching the Texans game yesterday…I was amazed at the huge holes that they were opening, with the Foster consistently running 4-5 yards before any contact was made. Don’t see that when I watch the Steelers.

  • Tim Culligan

    i think they wont get either of these guys. First of all, they’ll be too pricey for a team that will struggle to resign higher priorities like Lewis Foster etc. Secondly, they’d rather have a younger guy than an older veteran. RBs don’t do well after 30 traditionally, I don’t think it would be wise to spend this much money on someone as old as S Jackson or MJD, when we can pay a 3rd rounder much much less and possibly get the same production.

  • Mike Carroll

    Agreed. The Steelers will not be getting either of those guys, thankfully.

  • Fastmoney17

    they need to replace Marcus Gilbert and Willie Colon! They’re both terrible.. I hear people say Gilbert is good but I don’t see it. he looks pretty slow to me and gets beat easily by speed rushers in pass pro. The run game made a much better improvement under Mike Adams as right tackle. we need the line to consist of Adams-(insert FA guard or drafted guard here)-Pouncey-DeCastro-Foster. I think Foster is good fit as a right tackle. I think Colon is terrible too, overpaid for a injury-proned penalty machine. fix that and there goes the o-line problem, all thats left is getting cohesion on the line and finding a feature back.

  • zyzak

    Trade #2 and 3 DP to Jacksonville for MJD

  • SteelSpine

    OMG Edward Nestor: ouch but that’s telling it like it is on all that without sugar coating.

    Re DaveB’s article on this: I think DaveB nailed it regarding each of our RBs & it’s a safe bet that we will draft a RB in a middle round this year. I dont see any point in debating bidding for any expensive FA RBs tho, because Rooneys dont bid on any players which require bidding (at any position).

    Cant use any of our top 3 draftpicks for any RB in draft or trading those picks, because we have too many other positions of very-dire need. That’s why we have to take a chance by sticking with the average RBs we have plus whicher RB we draft in middle round this year.

    Too bad we even have to discuss getting a feature runner, spending a #1 to draft Mendenhall shows any staff or fan can predict wrong. Mendenhall in college looked tailor made for Steelers, when drafted I thought wow perfect for Steelers, Pittsburghers gonna love this RB. But Mendenall did not turn out to be a Steeler-type RB, he runs like a 180 pounder & cannot learn to hang on to the ball. By the way the 2nd round pick that year we thought was a steal getting Limas Sweed 1st-round-talent…woops!

  • RW

    We have too many other needs to take a RB in the first four rounds of the draft, particularly with the uncertainty surrounding Mike Wallace and James Harrison, to say nothing of Larry Foote, Casey Hampton and the health/longevity of both Polamalu and Miller. The Steelers need a pass rusher, a safety (or two), a tall WR and a MLB to start. Let’s wait until closer to the draft to start projecting where we should draft a RB. Additionally, we just don’t have the cap space (or the willingness) to sign a 29 year old feature back, or one that just came off of his worst season. I don’t think the Dwyer experiment is quite over, either. I’d be much happier if our entire O-Line stayed healthy for a season.

  • Two problems I see at the HB spot
    #1 Blocking was inconsistant and your piece on Adams has shown us that
    #2 The coaching staff never let anyone really get in a groove all season letting each guy have 5-10 carries. Injuries did contribute to this but thought the staff could have settled and stood behind someone better

  • Wouldnt keep Baron Batch on the team…he really showed me nothing during the season…at most let him compete in preseason but I do not think he has it…did come off an injury though

  • opie1280

    Steelers can’t afford MJD or Jackson no matter what kind of restructuring Omar pulls out his ass. The RB position is going to be handicapped for a few years…especially if they re-sign Redman, who is pretty much garbage.

  • TJimmy

    I disagree that the problem is their running backs. Dwyer and Redman, when healthy, are both very good. The real issue is the lack of quality O-line play. On the games where the offensive line played well, the RB’s played well. You can’t run if there are no running lanes.

  • Bob Loblaw

    A lot of our running woes come down on the line. People are all gabbing about Morris’ success, but fail to mention their line. Look at Shanahan’s history of running backs and you’ll see a lot of backs who performed above their projected level. A lot of that comes down to the line’s play.

    Not sure why so many are convinced our running problem is going to be solved by drafting another back, regardless of where we pick one up in the draft. We have backs on the roster from the 1st, 5th, 6th, 7th, and undrafted. So either we’re not good at finding running backs, or the problem is elsewhere. Neither problem is really going to be solved by drafting more running backs.

    Stick with who we have, get Dwyer in shape, and focus on getting that line into form. If the line continues to get pushed off the ball and leaving the back to get hit behind the line, it doesn’t matter who is going to be back there.

  • Bob Loblaw

    I’m not ready to give up on him. He didn’t do much, but none of our backs did at that point in the season.

  • Bob Loblaw

    The big difference is that Jerome was 24, Jackson will be 30 by the time he would play a snap for the Steelers.

  • Tom

    Jackson will be 30 before the 2013 season starts, so he won’t be getting a big buck long term deal. It’s worth kicking his tires to see what his contract expectations are.

  • JT

    While the OL didn’t help much, the RBs we currently have are terrible at finding the holes when they are there. Redman is good at bouncing off people, but it’s like he gets nowhere if he has open space. Dwyer is just impossible to define.They need a true back that can find the holes and hit them hard.

  • NW86

    Good article, but I actually disagree with most of the major points. I realize that many do agree with them, but these are my thoughts:
    1. That they need to stick with 1 back…I don’t get why everyone is saying this. If you have two relatively equal backs, or two backs with different strengths, there is nothing wrong with rotating them and keeping them both fresh and keeping defenses on their toes.
    2. That they don’t have anyone good enough to be a starter…I think Dwyer and Redman can both get the job done – they both did at times this year and both have done it in the past. Neither of them will ever be AP or Arian Foster level, but this team doesn’t need that level of RB performance right now to win.
    3. That they can afford to go after someone like MJD or Jackson, or to go after an RB early in the draft. The Steelers can’t even afford to keep all the players they have, and I would have to see them have to make additional cuts elsewhere on the team to pick up one of these guys. And they have bigger problems to worry about in the draft (safety, WR, OLB).
    I think the major problem came down to blocking. More often than not, the RB’s were getting hit as soon as they took the handoff, and had to work their @sses off just to get to the line of scrimmage. But all is not lost. I think with DeCastro, Adams, and Gilbert getting healthier and more experienced, the line could play much better next year. I simply don’t see them needing to (or being able to afford to) make any drastic moves at RB this year.

  • The team they came from is about the only parallel there. The rest is just reaching.

  • With the needs this team has, most of which are far greater than RB, that is a horrible idea.

  • Dan

    Agreed. Although we may be able to find better RBs in the draft on on the open market, our issue was overall continuity and o-line play. If we get our house in order there, Dwyer, Redman or maybe Rainy or others in our stable are likely fine. But we need a consistent line-up on the o-line and to make somebody the feature back (probably Dwyer but lets see how camp goes). If somebody doesn’t shine after a fair chance behind a solid line then look elsewhere. If we need to rebuild with youth (more of a defensive issue), then let’s do it and get it over with.

  • Weiss Chad

    Thats crazy.The value that we get with those two picks, the value to us is way more than any running back w out the last name peterson could ever bring this team

  • Maurice_hill_district

    I wuldnt say he’s garbage, just an endzone short yardage guy, so i suggest bulk him up more to make him a fullback, for blocking & at 2yard line.

  • Maurice_hill_district

    Right on to all that.

  • steeltown

    Is anyone else concerned with B.Batchs durability? Two yrs in a row with a major injury.. also Redman seems to have ongoing ankle issues and cant play more than 3games without missing one. I think Dwyer and Rainey are keepers, both change of pace guys (one with size, one with speed) but I think the Steelers need to get another guy with a build somewhere in the middle around 210lbs with some speed (thought B.Batch might be that guy, but he cant stay healthy) They’ll probably draft one somewhere between the 3rd and 6th Rds

  • steeltown

    Obviously the OL needs to play better and stay HEALTHY, that might help, but also Redman and Dwyer are pretty similar in size and speed, I dont see a need to keep both of them if they bring basically the same thing to the table. Dwyer seems to be more productive and has shown he can stay healthier, he seems to be the better choice of the two

  • LucasY59

    I have been thinking about how Steven Jackson could be a good candidate for the Steelers this offseason since the first Browns game this season, and my two main thoughts were that It worked well with Bettis (yes SJ is older than the Bus was, but a quality veteran could help Dwyer and maybe Redman as well, Bettis was there to help Parker) He has always been a very hard runner which is what seems to be needed with the steelers Oline and he may be more willing to sign at an affordable price to play for a team that gives him a chance to play for a championship. Also with so many other needs and what seems like a crowded backfield without adding to it in the draft or FA I hope they wait till next year to draft a RB unless a its a high round prospect that drops to the 6th or 7th round which wont happen

  • I think it would be awesome to get jackson, if not drew and would like to ser that happen. But non the less is im sureany pitt fns like my self can agree this comittee backfeild is not good at all. We need another barry foster, bettis, or a name not mentioned is bam bam morris lol. But imho i believe we have an awnser for that and he is on the team. He is a fullback last named johnson. We he got the ball when he did he showed very nimble feet like bettis and obviously he gas all the break tackle run u over like the bus type of build. I have been saying this every since we got him we should make him a pb rb!!! Im pretty sure the bus was a FB at one point in time and i can see this working out to a degree of great certainty. All i can ask is to try it out, use him for 3rd n short or goal line and i bet my bottom dollar the results would be better more so often than not. Just food for thought but picking up jackson or drew would be good. Pref jackson imo.