Steelers Starting Running Back Battle Will Be Fun To Watch

By Matthew Marczi

Of the five new starters—or starters in new positions, as is the case for Marcus Gilbert—that the Pittsburgh Steelers will be bringing to the offensive huddle in Week 1 of the 2013 season, we have already covered four. However, those positions are already all but resolved; the final position legitimately appears to be up for grabs.

Although Isaac Redman was technically the opening day starter at running back for the Steelers a year ago, he was only starting due to the injury that Rashard Mendenhall suffered near the end of the previous season. Despite what Mendenhall has said in the past and how his 2012 season went, both on and off the field, and despite the circumstances that led to him leaving the team in free agency, there is really little doubt that Mendenhall would have been the feature back had he not gotten seriously injured.

Thus, even if Redman should win the starting job in the preseason, he should still be considered a new starter. However, one must assume, and fairly, that the featured role will be temporary, and perhaps fleeting.

That could be due to head coach Mike Tomlin utilizing a short leash, as he did a season ago, with the running backs, which could have Redman quickly replaced by Jonathan Dwyer. But, of course, the primary reason for either Redman’s or Dwyer’s temporary status as starter is the selection of Le’Veon Bell in the second round of the past draft.

To state it simply, it may not yet be the case that the starting spot is Bell’s to lose, but it almost certainly is his to win. When considering the litany of scathing public comments from both Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert about the quality of the running backs from a year ago, one might be inclined to assume that they are hoping that Bell will grab the reins and not let go.

After all, it is much easier for a rookie to not only play, but to win a starting job, as a rookie on offense in Pittsburgh than it is on defense. Heath Miller was able to do that back in 2005. Maurkice Pouncey accomplished the feat in 2010. David DeCastro last year was essentially deemed the starter over Ramon Foster before a knee injury nearly derailed his entire season.

Of course, both Ben Roethlisberger and Gilbert logged significant starts as rookies, though both were due to injury. Santonio Holmes logged quite a bit of snaps in his rookie year, and started the last four games, in addition. Mike Adams would have likely had 11 starts as a rookie if he did not get injured after six; he was replaced by another rookie, Kelvin Beachum, who started the remaining five games of the year.

Given all of the early starting experience on offense over the past decade, then, and given the departure of a starter at the position, it is reasonable to believe that Le’Veon Bell has every chance in the world to start as early as the first game of the season. But in order to do so, he will need to prove himself during the preseason and win the job.

According to Jim Wexell’s reports for Steel City Insider, Bell is currently second on the depth chart with the conclusion of spring OTAs and the minicamp, behind Redman. Given the premature nature of such depth charts, it says more about the back end of the depth chart than it does the front end.

Dwyer was listed as the first team running back to start OTAs simply because he was the starter to finish off the season. However, reports on his spring have been mixed, from continued suggestions that he is worryingly overweight during the offseason to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Dejan Kovacevic repeatedly declaring Dwyer as his early choice to open the season in the back field rather than on the bench.

Given his position as third on the depth chart, right now that does not appear too likely. However, there is a long time between the end of minicamp and the start of training camp, and that perceived demotion should be all of the motivation that Dwyer needs to push himself, if that was not, in fact, the intention behind the ranking all along.

Redman, of course, was the first to be turned to as the starter last year, as mentioned previously, and, to be fair, the experiment more or less failed. However, it would not be entirely fair to view his starting capability based on those early season troubles. After all, he was dealing with multiple injuries at the time, and the offense was transitioning into a new offense that was clearly experiencing growing pains in terms of finding the running plays that it was comfortable running.

Indeed, he turned in perhaps the best performance by a back over the last couple of seasons for the Steelers when he ran all over the New York Giants’ defense during a Week 9 victory, rushing for 147 yards on 26 carries at a healthy clip of 5.7 yards per carry, adding a touchdown to the mix. He also showed his potential as a pass catcher in Week 6 against the Tennessee Titans when he took four passes 105 yards. In total, he caught 19 passes on the year for 244 yards.

As for Bell, much of what he has to offer has not been witnessed by most. We will have to wait until training camp starts for reports, and then for the preseason games to see him with our own eyes. But there seems to be little question that he is well within the mix. If he can show an aptitude for pass protection, he can win the starting job. Even if he does not excel in that area, however, he is certain to get plenty of snaps this year.

Most important of all with the drafting of Bell and the subsequent competition among the backs is the fact that they appear to be more motivated than ever, knowing that their opportunities are slipping away. Redman has lost weight from a year ago to help him adapt to a zone blocking scheme, and has worked on his receiving skills. Dwyer is training as we speak down in Florida in preparation for training camp. As a rookie, Bell has every reason in the world to be motivated—and having Steven Jackson compare you to himself doesn’t hurt either. This may be the only starting spot that appears to be legitimately up for grabs, but it should be a fun battle to watch.

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Shea Fahr

    This RB battle and the one for the back end of the WR corps are two of my favorites to watch for sure. Good article!

  • Paul

    I just want to see LeVeon Bell.

  • Josh Gustad

    The problem I’ve had the last couple years is the lack of consistency from our running backs. We have seen flashes of great play from both Redman and Dywer followed by lost fumbles by both. I’m hoping with the addition of Bell we play more consistent as an offensive unit. A good running game will set up the pass and help take some pressure of Big Ben from having to throw the ball 35+ times. Great article and I’m looking forward to this training camp battle.

  • Matt Searls

    This is one reason I’m so excited for training camp. A legit battle at a skill position. I don’t think wel see bell as the number one back until the 3rd preseason game. Colbert was disgusted with the backs last year and I think hel be wanting bell to start. Ring le bell!

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    That’s pretty much how I see it as well. On any given Sunday, Dwyer looks like a feature back. Then the next week, he’ll lay an egg. Redman will run great one week then get hurt the next. They are both “temporary” starters.

    This could be a very good situation for the Steelers. If Bell can thrive as our primary starter, and we keep two back ups (Dwyer, Redman) who can fill in as starters when needed (due to injury or fatigue)… We should be able to sustain a potent year long running attack.

  • sgtrobo

    I’m a bit more confident that the better (younger) player will get on the field on offense as opposed to defense. LeBeau loves his vets, but on offense we’ve had the rookie starters all along. I don’t get why we still put up with Dwyer’s lackadaisical attitude and weight control problems, since it seems he just isn’t particularly motivated (and please don’t talk about Jerome Bettis, Dwyer is NOT “Bus Jr.” or whatever). Redman is the 2nd best RB on the team, hopefully as a backup and short yardage specialist to Bell.

  • Steves

    I don’t think any one back can go all the year by himself. That is where the 2nd or 3rd HB comes into play. It Really don’t matter who is #1 or #2 in the 1st game, who gets the most yardage over the season and who makes the least amount of mistakes is what counts.

  • TrueSteelerForLife

    Wow, wow, Dwyer is getting it man. He was the first to sign his tender and wants to help the Steelers. He was a 6th round pick, so it’s not like he came here just ready to bust heads. He is still very young and i for one have high hopes for the guy, especially now that he is a motivated father, in a contract year!

  • VaDave

    The quote of the FO about running backs last year was directed at the group, but as a group of individuals standpoint, I think the finger was pointed more towards Rainey, Batch, and Mendenhall, than Redman and Dwyer. When either Redman, or Dwyer got decent blocking, which was rare running behind a line decimated by injury, they looked more than adequate and both have the results to prove it.

  • charles

    Its only an opinion since know one really knows what the FO is thinking. But, it might be that Bell was drafted for two reasons, YAC and the ability to catch the ball coming out of the backfield. I think this last reason is directly because of where Haley wants to take the offense. Haley wants Ben to make two quick reads and then either dump the ball off or throw it away. IMO only, this is where possible friction between Haley and Ben can arise. Ben does not like to dump the ball off or throw it away, he likes to go long. We will have to see how this plays out.
    As far as competition at the running part of the backs go, Haley has exspressed open displeasure with Dwyers conditioning discipline. Ergo Redman listened and came to camp ready. Dwyer, again, did not. Redman seems to have more discipline and more raw power. Dwyers upside is that he has great vision and has the ability therefore to truly be a very good back if not a great one given a healthy Oline. Preseason will give us the chance to see what Bell can do. It is only an opinion but Bell seems to be redundant, or perhaps a motivation to Dwyer and Redman to perform better. Colbert’s philosophy appears to be that he drafts to keep even secure positions like TE in a competetive mode. Besides you never know when you might hit a homerun as Seattle did with Russell Wilson and Marschawn Lynch

  • sgtrobo

    that’d be nice but this is, what, the 3rd time Dwyer’s come into camp and was considered out of shape? Sorry, but he was tapping out after a few plays last season because he was tired. Guy has no heart.

  • Pete

    Nice comment and I agree with you mostly. From my vantage point, the running was inconsistent last season as a direct result of the multitude of injuries to the O line. Had the O line been healthy all season and jelled together, this off season might look altogether different.

    By virtue of being a 2nd round pick, Bell is going to get a lot of looks to be the #1 back but I’d be surprised if he’s the starting back day 1 in September. IF the young O line is an improvement over the line of last season, all the backs will benefit and Redman and Dwyer will provide tough competition for Bell. With a good O line, the Steelers will be happy with this stable of backs. It remains to be seen with Bell, but both Redman and Dwyer can run. I agree that Redman appears to be more disciplined than Dwyer. I hope Dwyer sorts it out because when the O line gives him some space, he’s a dangerous runner.

  • steeltown

    It was only OTA’s.. lets see what Dwyer looks like at Training camp. I like Redman, but Dwyer is obviously the more talented runner, that said I hope Redman and Dwyer are both on roster this season.. we’ve seen plenty of injuries over the course of the last 2-3yrs, you can never have enough solid depth at the skill positions

  • cencalsteeler

    Rumor has it, Dwyer is training as we speak.

  • Milliken Steeler

    I think its Bell’s job eventually because of the new system and other issues the past two years.

    Its kind of sad because talent wise, Dwyer is a steal of a sixth round pick. The problem is, he seems okay to have made the roster and settled for just that. He big, quick for his size and is shiftier than you would think. That being said, you have to be in shape to be an NFL runner. I have heard different reports but coming in heavy again during OTA’s isn’t going to catch the coaches eye.

    Even if he is working his tail off in Florida as reported, if he came in heavy again like some were reporting, he will be watched again next year. You have to stay in shape at least all year round. Maybe not football shape however, coming in like you did nothing since the season ended and especially coming off a bad year for the team?

    I hope he takes conditioning seriously and it all changes but, i think he is gonna have to “settle” for being an in shape back up eventually due to his past two seasons.

  • steeltown

    Oh I agree..Dwyer most likely will be #2 (if he beats out Redman) regardless because as soon as Le’Veon shows he can consistently pass protect he’ll be the starter

  • Steeler Wheeler

    Nice article. I don’t really care who wins the job out of camp and gets the most snaps, just as long as I never, I mean never see another 175 pound “3rd down back” who can’t block and gets knocked over by the wind.

    Hoping all three dudes push each other to be their best, limit each other’s carries and by week 18 all are fresh and Bell has separated himself…nothing against Dwyer/redman, but we know their ceiling and I think Bell’s is significantly higher.

  • ATL96STEELER

    Hey steeltown…you’re right Dwyer is more talented than Redman. But both are the same guy imo, solid once they get past the LOS, but not quick enough to go lateral in the NFL. Also I felt LY the OL was not consistently opening holes…if Bell shows more burst (than Dwyer or Redman) in camp I expect him to be the starter.

    Change of pace RB carries were minimal LY, I expect that to change with Stephen-Howling if he makes the squad.

  • ATL96STEELER

    I don’t see both Dwyer & Redman making the squad because neither would be great on ST imo…If Bell shows more burst, more impact hitting the line, he will be the starter. If not opening day, shortly after.

  • Steves

    Which backs do you think will make 53?

  • ATL96STEELER

    Batch…I don’t think he has a contract…cheap vet, right now I say yes for ST.

    Bell…no brainer

    Dwyer…I think he has the potential to be a starter or a high carry guy making him attractive to another team, no.

    McNeal…no clue

    Redman…I think he’s the favored short yardage RB over Dwyer, yes.

    Stephens-Howling…his 2012 production makes me think yes.