Kick Return Job Or Bust For Steelers RB LaRod Stephens-Howling

If running back LaRod Stephens-Howling is going to make the Pittsburgh Steelers roster in 2013, he will have to prove to both offensive coordinator Todd Haley and special teams coach Danny Smith that he can be a third down back and a kick returner respectively.

“When I came in for my visit, they let me know the opportunity they had on third downs, and they let me know special teams is a big reason why I\’m here,” said Stephens-Howling via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “They let me know right off the bat that both things will come into account when it comes to the roster.”

Last season rookie running back Chris Rainey, the Steelers sixth-round draft pick, saw action in both of those roles, but was released immediately following the season after being charged with simple battery on his girlfriend back in early January.

While Rainey was productive last season as the Steelers kick returner, as he rankled eighth in the NFL in kickoff return yardage with 1,035 yards on 39 returns for a 26.5 average, his production on third downs wasn\’t what many expected it would be. The Florida product rushed just four times for 25 yards on third downs in 2012 and chipped in only three third down catches for another 11 yards.

While Stephens-Howling has a bulkier build than that of Rainey, his production on third downs since being drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the seventh-round of the 2009 NFL draft hasn\’t necessarily been eye-popping. Over the course of the last four seasons with the Cardinals, the five foot, seven inch, 180 pound running back has rushed just 13 times for 50 yards on third downs and has only caught 12 third down passes for 83 yards and a touchdown.

While he hasn\’t really established himself as an offensive weapon at the NFL level just yet, Stephens-Howling is, however, an accomplished NFL kick returner. In his four seasons with the Cardinals he returned 163 kickoffs for 4,067 yards and three touchdowns which equates to a 25 yard per return average.

Stephens-Howling was an unrestricted free agent this past offseason and said last week that he decided to sign with the Steelers during the offseason because of how Haley used Dexter McCluster when he was the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs.

“That was one of the things that made this opportunity look so good to me because I saw what he (Haley) has done with the running backs,” Stephens-Howling told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “It is something that I am looking forward to have a chance to compete and have that role.”

Haley noted last week that Stephens-Howling is a little different than the rest of the running backs currently on the roster.

“He is a veteran with a little different skill set than some of the other guys,” said Haley, who is entering his second season as the Steelers offensive coordinator.

As far as the competition goes that Stephens-Howling figures to face in training camp for the kick returner job the only legitimate threat that he will face will come from Utah undrafted free agent Reggie Dunn, who set NCAA records in 2012 for kickoff returns for touchdowns in a season (four), 100-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns in a career (five), and 100-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns in a game (two). Dunn, however, is a one-trick pony as he really wasn\’t used much on offense as a wide receiver during his three years, and he certainly isn\’t going to be considered a candidate to be the Steelers third down running back.

As far as returning kicks go, Stephens-Howling looks forward to having that role with the Steelers in 2013.

“I love it so much because you have the freedom,” he said. “It\’s kind of like being a kid playing in the backyard. You have those guys blocking in front of and you\’re just reading those blocks.”