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.”

  • 2443scott

    one trick pony ohh no not that word ….but dunn is that but boy can he run ….now if steelers could some how learn that guy to play wr he be dangerous deep ….they keep every other guy around 4 years ..any way i think howling should make the team and they should release batch and give him that spot ..put dunn on practice squad in case something happens to howling and teach that kid to catch even if he catches a little more then he did in college he be a threat deep at lease he be there as a wr/kick returner on practice squad ….howling be a special team player and also a extra back he can do more then batch so makes the move a good one ….as for dunn if i was him i get me a wr coach/trainer and help me be a wr …he cant be any worst off then a wallace one trick pony ohhhhh i said it one trick pony wallace wasnt that good of a catcher either …

  • dgh57

    While LaRod didn’t excel on 3td downs, on the positive side, when he was ask to fill in at RB he produced! Both times he had 20+ carries for over 100 yards! He produced on ST also! So maybe a change in scenery & offensive systems would do him good.

    I like Dunn for his speed and potential as a KR as much as the next person but he seems to be to RAW as a WR or PR! I haven’t heard anything as to why he didn’t excel in the latter 2 so I’m left to guess: was it poor hands, coaching, route running, or couldn’t grasp the playbook? So at worst he can make the PS(to hone his skills) and at best the 5th WR spot(which I’m inclined to think won’t happen) his 1st season.

  • dennisdoubleday

    Dunn is highly unlikely to make the roster. Guys who can run 4.28 don’t go undrafted unless they just can’t play.

  • Christopher Wilkes

    Injuries aside, Batch is gone. It’ll come down to the last cut, and I think LaRod will make the 53 as the 4th RB, 3rd down RB, and KR, but as soon as another player/position is needed, due to injury or whatever, he’s gone. His KR average/production sounds great, but that was primarily in his first 2 seasons. The only way he sticks with this team the entire season is if all our other options at KR flop, which they probably will. I’d rather carry 3 RBs, cut LaRod, and have someone else return kickoffs. AB will probably return punts anyways. I’d also like to see Bell used as the 3rd down RB, since he’ll probably not start out the year as the #1RB.

  • Kevin Gobleck

    I feel that our new WR Coach Richard Mann could really develop Dunn into an OK wide receiver. Hopefully he does so then we can also have him as a return specialist.

  • steves

    Don’t think Stephens or Dunn will make 53. One trick ponys don’t last in the NFL. We are looking for players who can make 53 for multiple positions. Kickers, punters and long snappers are tossed around in the NFL like dice, and so are return guys. If Stephens makes 53 it will be as a 3rd down back, NOT as a return man, and he has to beat out AB for that.

  • SteelersDepot

    If he cant win the return job then he will not be a special teams contributor and it won’t matter how he is on third downs as they will give that role to Batch, who does play special teams. You don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to see that.

  • steeltown

    I think Stephens-Howling makes the roster, unless he fumbles a kick in preseason. The Steelers are looking for versatility and while he is not the greatest RB, he can still play RB and catch out of the backfield, throw in the fact that he is a very capable return guy and its not hard to see he has a better shot at making the roster than most others (except Le’Veon of course)

    I think between Stephens-Howling and E.Sanders we have our KR/PR set.. could possibly throw Gilreath and J.Brown (if they make the roster) into the conversation as well… I would use the hell out of Emmanuel this season and that includes returning kicks

  • ThinkerT

    Stephens-Howling (or “The Hyphen”, as he was known among the fans in AZ) will surprise you at RB. He got his shot when Wells and Williams went down and did a great job (see dgh57’s numbers below). He’s not built to be a full-time back, but he’s in that Sproles-mode where he’s shifty and can get lost behind the big guys and find the holes to slip through. He’s also a decent pass catcher as well.